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Bodies of dozens of people wash ashore in western Libya

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The bodies of at least 74 people, believed to be migrants, have washed ashore on the Libyan coast in the latest tragedy at sea for people fleeing to Europe to escape war and poverty.

The Libyan Red Crescent said on Tuesday the bodies had been found the previous morning on the coast of the city of Zawiya, and aid workers had spent six hours recovering them, with more dead believed to be in the vicinity.

A spokesman for the organisation, Mohammed al-Misrati, told the Associated Press that a torn rubber boat was found nearby and it was likely that more migrants had drowned in the incident, as such vessels usually carry about 120 people.

The Zawiya coastguard later posted a video that showed the migrants’ boat with no engine. Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told Reuters a local staff member had reported that “traffickers came and removed the engine from the boat and left the craft adrift”.

“This is not a only horrible number of deaths in one incident but it strikes us as something that we haven’t really seen much of, which is either deliberate punishment or murder of migrants,” Millman said.

Images published on Twitter by the Red Crescent showed bodies lined up on a beach in black and white body bags, the latest mass casualty incident after a year of record deaths along the smuggling route from Libya, racked by civil chaos, to the shores of southern Italy.

Misrati said the local authorities would take the bodies to a cemetery in Tripoli that caters for unidentified remains.

On its Facebook page, the Red Crescent branch in Zawiya appealed for support to handle the bodies. It said some remained on the beach as the organisation lacked vehicles to ferry them to the cemetery. “There are still bodies floating in the sea and we couldn’t reach them,” it said.

The European Border and Coast Guard Agency said last week that 4,579 migrants had died while attempting the crossing in 2016, 1,700 more than in 2015. The record number of deaths came as Europe worked to tighten its borders and limit the influx of refugees, despite intensifying humanitarian crises in Africa and the Middle East.

The real number of dead is likely to be higher because not all drownings are documented.

This month the EU backed an agreement between Italy and Libya to stem the arrival of migrants to Europe, which prompted condemnation by human rights groups.

Under the agreement, the UN-backed Libyan government would receive £171m as well as training for the country’s coastguard in exchange for better policing the outflow of migrants from Libya, where conflict continues years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

A similar deal was reached between the EU and Turkey in which Ankara received financial aid as well as a promise to lift visa restrictions on Turkish citizens travelling to the Schengen zone in exchange for halting the flight of Syrian and Afghan refugees to the continent.

Human rights groups have said the Libya deal would expose children and migrants to widespread abuse and exploitation by armed groups that operate in the country as well as smuggling networks, amid reports of torture and abuse in migrant detention centres and ongoing human trafficking operations.

“Simply pushing desperate children back to a country which many describe as hell is not a solution,” said Ester Asin, an official at Save the Children.

“The EU is yet again outsourcing its responsibility to protect the rights of migrants and refugees with no guarantees about what will happen to the many men, women and children after they have been returned to Libya. Refugees could be detained in Libya, where conditions in detention centres are widely seen as inhuman and people have reported being beaten, whipped and hung from trees. We have heard countless reports of women and children suffering persecution, beating and rape.”

Past deals with Libya under Gaddafi’s reign have been similarly condemned as exposing migrants and refugees to a panoply of abuses in detention centres, in addition to the moral concerns of propping up the Libyan government at the time with aid and military training.

January was the deadliest month by far in recent years for migrants fleeing along the Libya-Italy corridor, with 228 drownings despite an expected slowdown during winter, according to the European Border Agency. It said poor quality vessels were to blame for the rise.

“We are seeing the new boats, which are not equipped with anything, but they carry more people,” the Libyan coastguard spokesman Ayoub Gassim told AP. “This is going to be even more disastrous for the migrants.”