TRIPOLI - The UN Security Council on Thursday said reports that migrants detained in Libyan camps were being sold into slavery could amount to "crimes against humanity" in a joint statement of condemnation.
It follows global shock over the atrocities suffered in Libya by African migrants, many of whom are trying to reach Europe, brought home by a CNN report showing people being sold as slaves.
The council said it "condemns such actions as heinous abuses of human rights which may also amount to crimes against humanity," according to the statement, which was drafted by Great Britain.
It added it was essential "to transfer detainees to State authorities and encourages the Libyan authorities to reinforce their cooperation with international organization and UN agencies and to ensure humanitarian access to detention centers."
Since the 2011 collapse of the Moamer Kadhafi regime, Libya has been riven by fighting between militias which hold captives. Libyan authorities exercise little control over them.
"The Security Council emphasizes that a stable Libya is the only way to help improve the living conditions of all people in Libya, including migrants," the resolution added.
It is rare for a UN resolution to single out a specific country when talking about slavery, a phenomenon that is normally discussed in the context of global rights abuses.
Revelations of slave auctions have prompted several African countries backed by the UN to begin evacuation operations aimed at bringing their nationals home.
According to the UN, the Libyan government controls around 30 detention centers with some 15,000 people -- but the number of refugees and migrants in the hands of traffickers and smugglers under the protection of militias is much higher.
Following the reading of the statement, the deputy representative of Russia to the UN, Petr Iliichev, said he regretted that it failed to mention "the origin of the chaos" in Libya, a clause proposed by Moscow but not retained in the final text.
Russia has long accused France, the United Kingdom and the United States of having contributed militarily to the overthrow of Kadhafi during an operation originally presented as a humanitarian mission.
- 'End the suffering' -
Libya's prime minister vowed Thursday to take action to ease the suffering of tens of thousands of migrants stranded in his north African country, even though it is still battling instability.
Thousands of migrants, many from sub-Saharan Africa, had travelled to Libya in the hopes of making the sea crossing to reach Italy, before moving northwards to other parts of Europe.
But they found themselves stuck in holding centres, as Tripoli worked with the European Union to cut off the sea smuggling routes.
Speaking after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Libya's Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj said the numbers of migrants are "staggering -- we are talking about 500,000 migrants outside holding centres and 20,000 in the 42 centres run by the Interior Ministry."
But he said that last month's two-day summit in Abidjan on the migration crisis has prompted some African countries to take action.
"Some African countries began to organise flights to repatriate their citizens and we are very open and cooperative with these countries," Sarraj said, adding that Tripoli has also agreed with Rome to set up repatriation offices in migrant holding centres.
"And we are open to working with all regional and international organisations to end the suffering of the migrants and to help them return to their countries," added the Libyan prime minister.
Merkel meanwhile pledged help from the EU, saying that "from Europe, we will provide support so that many can go home" to their countries of origin.
She also urged Sarraj to give "better access" to international organisations to the holding camps.
Addressing recent reports that some migrants had even been sold into slavery, Sarraj said a commission of inquiry will soon deliver findings on whether the claims are substantiated.
"We express our total condemnation of such practice if it really exists," he said.
US television network CNN aired the footage last month of an apparent live auction in Libya where black men were presented to North African buyers as potential farmhands and sold off for as little as $400.
Human-trafficking networks have flourished in the chaos that followed the NATO-backed uprising which toppled long-time Libyan ruler Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
More than 8,800 stranded migrants have been returned home this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, which is also compiling evidence of slavery.