ABOARD THE MS AQUARIUS (AFP) - A group of rappers who say they had to flee Libya for their art were on their way to Italy Wednesday after being rescued by a charity boat.
The self-described musicians were among a group of 17 mostly Libyan men picked up by the Aquarius, a vessel operated by French NGO SOS Mediterranee and international humanitarian organisation Doctors without Borders (MSF), from a fishing boat in distress in waters off the Libyan coast.
"I'm (a) rapper, I do rap music, so I got to get out of Libya," one of the men, Youssef, told AFP.
"I have to get out of Libya for freedom of speech, you know about that. Libya is a dangerous zone right now for arts..." Youssef, from the country's second city Benghazi, said he had paid a trafficker he met in a coffee shop in the capital Tripoli to get on the boat.
"So I was talking and someone after I finished talking got me to the side and said 'If you are looking for a trip I can get you one, but it will be expensive'.
"I asked him how much expensive and he said 'like 1,500 (US dollars)'. I said I can pay 1,000, you know, stuff like this. So he got my number and he said I will see and come back to you. The next day he called me and said: 'All right someone will come and pick the money up'." MSF volunteer Seraina Eldada said the rescued men had been severely dehydrated and exhausted when the Aquarius reached their stricken boat.
"They were very weak, some of them barely conscious," she said. "But they are all getting stronger now and starting to recover, drinking water.
"Right now we are just trying to figure out what their stories are." The rescued men were to be taken to an Italian port although first the Aquarius was taking part in another rescue operation, this time for a fishing boat reported to have some 300 people on board.
More than 95,000 migrants have been rescued in the Mediterranean and taken to Italy since the start of the year, just over a third of them on privately-funded NGO boats.
The organisations say they are saving lives but their operations have been criticised for allegedly encouraging migrants to risk a journey that has claimed at least 2,385 lives so far in 2017.