Thu Apr 6, 2017 5:31PM
This photo taken on November 4, 2016 shows refugees sitting on a rubber boat during a rescue operation off the Libyan coast. (Photo by AFP)
This photo taken on November 4, 2016 shows refugees sitting on a rubber boat during a rescue operation off the Libyan coast. (Photo by AFP)

Four suspected refugee smugglers have been killed in clashes with coastguards off Libya’s western coast.

Coastguard spokesman Ayoub Qassem said Thursday that those killed earlier in the day close to the city of Zawiya, about 45 kilometers west of the capital Tripoli, had resisted arrest.

“The coastguard boat detected the gunmen's boat by radar during a patrol,” Qassem said, adding, “The gunmen were asked to stop but they refused to follow the rules, which means most likely they were smugglers of illegal migrants. They opened fire at the patrol. The coastguards fired back too."

The official said the coastguard had managed to apprehend two of the suspected smugglers while search was underway to find one missing refugee. He added that a journalist from Germany, who was onboard the coastguard vessel, suffered minor injuries in the exchange of fire.

Refugees normally use the western coast of Libya to embark on a risky journey toward Europe to the north. Chaos in Libya, a country which has been gripped by militancy since the fall of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi six years ago, has enabled powerful smuggling networks to operate with impunity.

A deal between the European Union and Turkey last March forced many refugees to use the route in central Mediterranean toward Italy. Most of the refugees are packed into dinghies that normally carry them to international waters where European rescue craft or other vessels pick them up. The coastguard in Libya intercepts some of the boats and forces them to return the refugees.

Estimates say around 600 refugees have died since the start of this year while trying to cross the sea from Libya to Italy.

The International Organization for Migration puts the number of those who managed to reach Italy by the end of last month at 23,125.