At least five migrants died off the Libyan coast after their boat capsized in a rescue operation. A German NGO and the Libyan coast guard are arguing over the deaths.

Migrants arrive at a naval base after they were rescued by Libyan coastal guards in Tripoli, Libya November 6, 2017.
Migrants arrive at a naval base after they were rescued by Libyan coastal guards in Tripoli, Libya November 6, 2017. (Reuters)

At least five African migrants died and more were missing off western Libya on Monday. The incident happened after a boat carrying about 140 people capsized and some migrants refused help by the Libyan coast guard and tried instead to swim to a German rescue vessel.

The migrants' rubber boat overturned some 46 km (30 miles) off the Libyan coast, said Libyan officials and rescue workers in Tripoli.  The coast guard later brought some 45 survivors to Tripoli.

A video on the rescue operation obtained by Reuters showed some migrants attempting to jump off the Libyan patrol boat in order to reach a  Sea-Watch ship belonging to a German non-governmental organisation, which was a few metres away.

TRT World's Caitlin McGee reports.

Some screamed to be allowed to leave the Libyan boat as the German vessel came closer. The Libyans tried to discourage the migrants from trying to reach the German boat, Sea-Watch said.

The incident sparked mutual recrimination by Sea-Watch and the Libyan coast guard.

At least five migrants had died, including a toddler, due to the "violent and reckless behaviour of (the) Libyan coast guards," Sea-Watch said on its Twitter feed, adding that 58 had been rescued.

"The so-called Libyan Coastguard forced as many as they could into their vessel to take them back to Tripoli," the German group added.

A member of German NGO Sea-Watch (L) helps a migrant board a boat after he was recovered in the Mediterranean Sea on November 6, 2017.
A member of German NGO Sea-Watch (L) helps a migrant board a boat after he was recovered in the Mediterranean Sea on November 6, 2017. (AFP)

The Libyan coast guard said an unknown number of people had died after their inflatable boat had sunk and Abu Ajala Amer Abdelbari, a coast guard commander, said the German NGO had undermined its rescue operations by its boat's approach.

"The Sea-Watch was approaching while we were rescuing migrants," he said. "This was encouraging the migrants to swim to the Sea-Watch and a (nearby) French navy ship."

A migrant tries to board a boat of the German NGO Sea-Watch in the Mediterranean Sea on November 6, 2017.
A migrant tries to board a boat of the German NGO Sea-Watch in the Mediterranean Sea on November 6, 2017. (AFP)

The survivors brought to Tripoli were from West African countries, including Nigeria and Senegal.

"I wanted to reach Italy. I don't know what to do now," said Dora Onoruyi, a 23-year old arts student from the southern Nigerian city of Benin, known as hub for human traffickers. Benin is also where women are smuggled to Italy, often to work as prostitutes.

"I see no future in Nigeria, there are no jobs," she said, standing next to a group of weeping Nigerian survivors.

Libya is the main departure point for migrants trying to travel by boat to Europe. But numbers crossing to Italy have fallen sharply since July due to a drop in people smuggling and increased activity by Libya's European-backed coastguard.