A group of 281 irregular immigrants from Libya disembarked in Ċirkewwa yesterday afternoon after being escorted by patrol boats which arrived just before they reached Gozo’s coast.

This was the third large boatload to arrive in less than 24 hours and carried 70 women and 20 children aged up to three years. Two others carrying a total of 535 immigrants were escorted to the base of the Armed Forces of Malta in Haywharf on Monday evening.

All three boats are said to have left from Tripoli and seem to have been organised by the same people.

During yesterday’s rescue, the press was allowed access to the migrants, who said they were Eritreans, Ethiopians and Sudanese and had been at sea for at least three days.

Army sources pointed out that everyone on board seemed to be in good health and that this was probably thanks to good weather and calm seas.

Some of the migrants carried documentation and other belongings in their luggage.

One young Eritrean man described his “horrible” experience in Libya where he said he lived in fear of being confused with mercenaries. “If they see a black man they think he wants to kill them,” he said.

Asked if he had witnessed any atrocities, he said he spent most of the time indoors afraid to walk the streets but heard lots of gunfire.

Another man said he had been in Libya for five years and this was not the first time he had tried to escape.

“The boats were organised by the same people,” he said, referring to a Libyan racket which was widely believed to enjoy the support of the North African regime.

The migrants said they paid between $500 and $1,000 for their journey – meaning that those who organised the boats were pocketing an average of $200,000.

Tourists travelling to Gozo and Comino watched in awe as the migrants were helped off the ship and individually searched before they were rounded up and placed on a number of police coaches.

A number of Maltese people stopped to watch the disembarkation, with many commenting that this was Muammar Gaddafi’s threat coming true and that many more boats would arrive shortly.

There were also a couple of Eritreans in the area who waved with joy. One of them later told The Times that he had lived in Libya for four years and recognised some of the people on board.

On Monday, the first boat carried 227 men, 72 women and 34 children, while the second carried 153 men, 36 women and 13 children. Most of the migrants are being kept in the detention centres in Hal Far and Safi, while families are being kept in open centres.

Meanwhile, a Greek cruise liner called the Ionian King brought 151 Bangladeshi, Peruvian and South Korean evacuees from Libya yesterday evening. Despite reports claiming otherwise, there were no injured people on board. The vessel left from Misurata where it had transported humanitarian aid. The evacuees will disembark early this morning.

The UN refugee agency yesterday issued a warning that centres housing those who arrived by boat in Italy and Malta were being “stretched”. It said more than 2,000 “non-Libyans” had fled Tripoli by boat to the two countries.

“Five boats have arrived in Italy since Saturday evening, carrying 1,484 people. Two boats arrived in Malta yesterday with 535 passengers. Most of them are Eritreans and Somalis, with many women and children among them, but there are also Ethiopians, Sudanese and a number of other nationalities. To date Libyans do not appear to be among those arriving in either country.”

According to people who worked on one of the rescues off Linosa (a small Italian island near Lampedusa), a woman gave birth at sea while awaiting rescue while two others suffered miscarriages during the ordeal at sea or after landing.

“Most of the new arrivals slept outside over the weekend before being transferred to reception facilities in Sicily.”

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is discussing contingency planning with the Italian and Maltese authorities and Red Cross, as there are indications that more arrivals from Libya can be expected.

The reception capacity of the larger Italian island of Lampedusa is already overstretched following the arrival of thousands of Tunisians over the past weeks.

The UNHCR said it was grateful to Italy and Malta for their reception of the new arrivals from Libya and urged other European Union countries to demonstrate solidarity with these front-line countries.

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