DAKAR (AlertNet) - Thousands of sub-Saharan African migrants fleeing fighting in Libya are stranded in the south of the desert state and are in urgent need of assistance, aid groups say.
Nearly 4,900 sub-Saharan Africans arrived last weekend in neighbouring Niger from Libya, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which has received reports that thousands more are either en route to the northern Nigerien town of Dirkou or stranded in Sabha, southern Libya.
"There are many in Sabha who are unable to leave Libya because they don't have any means of getting transport to take them south (to the border)," IOM spokeswoman Jemini Pandya said.
Since Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi started to crack down last month on protesters seeking an end to his 41-year rule, violence has escalated in the North African country.
Western forces launched air strikes against targets in Libya on Saturday, a day after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution creating a Libyan no-fly zone to protect civilian areas from attack.
There have been reports of sub-Saharan migrants in the country being targeted by both pro- and anti-Gaddafi supporters accusing them of being mercenaries.
"They (sub-Saharan Africans) are in an extremely vulnerable position," said Sybella Wilkes, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
"We just had a very disturbing report from Eritrean nationals living in Tripoli who say a gang of 20 Libyan youth broke down the door of their apartment where they have been hiding for three weeks and threatened them," she added.
"They are extremely anxious and they need assistance and more than that they just want to get out of Libya."
UNHCR and other aid organisations have been helping people from sub-Saharan Africa return home with the understanding that many of their governments are not in a position to fund flights, Wilkes said.
Under an emergency evacuation programme, UNHCR and IOM have run more than 264 flights to repatriate some 58,200 people from Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria since the start of March.
However, the deterioration of the security situation and the limited number of aid agencies in the country has made it difficult to provide relief to these migrants as well as other civilians needing help, the UNHCR said.
More than 323,000 people have fled the violence in Libya, the agency said.
The agency also warned on Tuesday that there is a rise in the number of internally displaced persons. UNHCR staff at Egypt's border with Libya have been told by people fleeing the conflict that thousands of Libyans are displaced in the east of the country, taking refuge in homes, schools and university halls particularly in the towns of Ajdabiyah, Derna, and Tobruk, the agency said in a statement.
"We are highlighting the fact that for the first time we are hearing about internal displacements in very challenging circumstances and we must prioritise getting humanitarian aid to these people," Wilkes said on the phone from Geneva.