Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Baghdadi has admitted the country cannot do anything to stop the rising flow of illegal immigrants reaching Malta and Italy.

The admission, made during a press conference in Tripoli, comes as suspicions grow within the EU and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) that Libya was involved in trafficking thousands of sub-Saharan Africans to Europe.

Blaming Europe and the ongoing Nato air strikes, Mr Baghdadi said “Libya’s gates are now wide open to illegal immigration towards Europe and Libya is not in any position to stop it”.

He said that because of the conflict and the air strikes by Nato war planes, Libyan ports were not being patrolled and the situation for illegal immigrants was a “free-for-all”.

Just before the start of the conflict, Muammar Gaddafi had warned that “Europe will be invaded” if it dared to attack.

Speaking to The Times yesterday on condition of anonymity, EU officials said intelligence clearly indicated Libyan officials were behind the surge in illegal immigration.

“According to reports gathered by our agencies on the ground, including interviews with asylum seekers arriving in Malta and Lampedusa, it is clear Libyan police and soldiers are heavily involved in the ongoing trafficking,” they said.

“Arriving immigrants told us they had paid money to Libyan security agents while rickety boats carrying hundreds of immigrants towards Europe are constantly being accompanied by Libyan navy vessels until they are outside the country’s territorial waters,” the officials said.

EU urged to step up missions

According to the UNHCR, about 800 illegal immigrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe drowned in the 12 weeks since the start of the Libyan conflict.

UNHCR spokesman Melissa Flemming urged the EU to step up its patrol missions in the area between Libya, Malta and Sicily in the coming weeks so that proper assistance could be given to those fleeing the conflict and to avoid further deaths.

She said that, contrary to some perceptions of “massive influx”, Europe received only two per cent of all the sub-Saharan Africans who fled Libya since the start of the conflict. These amounted to 12,360 immigrants, most of whom landed in Lampedusa. The majority of immigrants fleeing Libya went to neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Chad, Ms Flemming said.

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