Authorities in Zuwara arrested three men suspected of being involved in launching a boat packed with migrants and refugees, which sank on Friday, killing up to 200 people, including children.
A photo of the trio holding up pictures of toddlers who drowned in the incident was published on social media by the coastal city’s Rapid Intervention Force after the arrests.
“They are in their twenties,” a security official said. “We think that more are involved which we are still chasing.”
No further details were given but Zuwara, a town near to the border with Tunisia, is one of the busiest smuggling hubs in the country launching boats to Europe everyday.
Early Friday morning the two-floored fishing vessel, which was holding as many as 450 people from Syria, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, sunk just an hour into sea passage from Libya to Italy. Hundreds of people locked into the hold had tried to scramble to the top deck in desperation when holes in the hull of the battered boat started letting water in.
Survivors said the captain had radioed the smugglers on the shore as the boat became increasingly unsteady but when he received no response, jumped into the sea and swam back to the beach – abandoning the hundreds of passengers to their fate.
At least two other boats sailed past, ignoring the sinking vessel and the desperate pleas of those clinging on to the shattered remains of the boat.
Some 117 bodies were recovered from the water and beaches near Zuwara, as local residents, the coastguard and aid workers picked corpses off the beach and fished them out of the water for 24 hours straight. The bodies were packed into orange body bags and sent to the morgue for identification.
Local residents, who helped pick up bodies strewn across the coastline, told Libya Channel the scene on the beaches was “out of your worst nightmare”.
Photos circulated on social media showed the bodies of five children, thought to be from Syria, washed up on the shore, one, just a toddler, was still in his nappy.
Only 198 – including a family of Libyans from Benghazi – were successfully rescued and bought back to Libya’s shores, likely bound for migrant detention camps. There are still dozens unaccounted for.
Just hours before the sinking frustrated Zuwara residents, angered at their home being used as a smuggling launch pad, staged a protest holding up banners reading: “How many dead bodies did that luxury car cost you?”
They held a similar demonstration on Friday as the death toll mounted.
UNCHR reported on Friday that the number of migrants and refugees that made the perilous seal passage to Europe this year passed 300,000. The record high number is 80,000 more than travelled in the whole of 2014.
Meanwhile than 2700 people have died mid-crossing in 2015, a number expected to increase as the smuggling seasons continues, compared to 3,500 who died or went missing in 2014.
Tens of thousands leave for Greece from Turkey but by far the busiest crossing is from Libya to Italy. Heavily armed smuggling gangs have exploited he escalating lawlessness across the country, which has sunk back into civil war, to run their lucrative networks.
The escalating clashes and rise of the so-called Islamic State group has also forced many refugees to abandon plans of making Libya a temporary home and pay upwards of $400 for places on dinghies or wooden boats.
Libya has asked the European Union for help to train and equip its navy, which was largely destroyed during the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. It has also repeatedly called for the lifting of a four-year-long arms embargo so it can purchase weaponry to fight smuggling gangs, a flourishing insurgency and anti-government armed groups.
But cooperation was frozen in 2014 as the European Union boycotted Libya Dawn’s self-declared government controlling western Libya, which seized the capital Tripoli a year ago by expelling the internationally recognized premier to the east.
The eastern government, which is the only authority the west and most regional powers recognize, has no control over western libya where the smugglers operation.