TRIPOLI - Niger has flown home more than 500 of its citizens from Libya as part of an urgent repatriation plan which will see up to 4,000 people evacuated, the foreign ministry has said.
The move follows global shock over the atrocities suffered in Libya by African migrants, many of whom are trying to reach Europe, which was brought home by a CNN report showing people being sold as slaves.
Pressure has since grown on individual states and the African Union to get them out, with the AU this week pledging to repatriate 20,000 Africans within the next six weeks.
"This evening, 504 of our fellow countrymen who were living in Libya have been brought back home," said Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yacoubou who met them as they arrived at Niamey airport on Wednesday evening.
"There are thousands of others who are still in Libya and we will bring back everyone who wants to leave," he said.
Interior Minister Bazoum Mohamed said buses had been chartered to ferry them back to their villages.
Among those brought back home there was a tangible sense of relief.
"I feel so relieved to have left that hell back there. Even though it was anarchy in Libya, we didn't know that migrants were being sold, although ransom demands are rife," said one of those who landed on Wednesday, who looked exhausted and did not give his name.
Some 4,000 Niger nationals have already signed up to be brought home, the foreign ministry said, saying they would be brought back in a "rolling airlift".
- 250,000 since 2011 -
It is not the first time that Niamey has repatriated its nationals stranded in neighbouring Libya.
Since the Kadhafi regime collapsed in 2011, Libya has fallen under the control of a network of armed groups and militias; the violence and anarchy contributing to the push by many migrants, some of whom have been there for years, to try and make the perilous sea crossing to Europe.
Over the past six years, around 250,000 people have returned home to Niger, fleeing the violence in Libya.
At the end of November, Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou called on the International Criminal Court to take up the case of African migrants being sold as slaves in Libya.
Agadez, the main city in central Niger, has become a revolving door for economic migrants seeking to reach Europe via Libya, winning notoriety as Africa's people-smuggling capital.
Despite a government crackdown and increased security checks at the borders, aided by the EU, there is still a steady flow of migrants and traffickers passing through Niger.