Libya's coastguard detained more than 700 illegal immigrants who had try to sail to Europe on a boat
The human traffickers were trying to stop officials on Friday from reaching the overcrowded boats – which were jam-packed with EU-bound migrants.
Libya's coastguard detained more than 700 illegal African and Middle Eastern immigrants who had tried to sail to Europe on a small wooden boat.
Spokesperson for the Libyan navy Ayoub Qassem said: "The coastguard arrested some 700 immigrants at dawn on Friday.
"They had tried to set off to Italy with the help of smugglers in two small, overcrowded boats. The boats set sail from Sabratha, a town located some 40 miles west of the capital Tripoli."
Human traffickers were trying to stop officials from reaching the crowded boats
More than six years after the ousting of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the lawless North African country has been turned into a hotbed of human trafficking and is now a major hub for traffickers smuggling migrants by boat to Italy.
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137 migrants of African origins were rescued by coast guard boats off the coast of Libya
The navy spokesperson added that the smugglers – who had stayed behind to watch the two boats sail away – fired shots at coastguards as they scrambled to stop the EU-bound migrants in their tracks.
Former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi ousted more than years ago
He said: "Coastguard officers fired back, and the suspected smugglers fled the scene. Luckily no one was hurt or injured."
Mr Qassem added that the intercepted migrants were, for the most part, from sub-Saharan Africa, but that Syrians, Egyptians, Tunisians and Palestinians were also on board.
More than 1,300 migrants have been rescued off the Italian coast since Friday; the Italian coastguard has also pulled three lifeless bodies from the sea.
Most EU-bound African migrants set out from the coast of western Libya, which is located some 200 miles from the southern Italian coast.