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Nigerian Charles Otokiti, 37, who was rescued at sea after passing through Libya in 2016, is pictured in Rome, Italy, July 3, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

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By Steve Scherer

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's shutting of its ports to humanitarian rescue ships will trap more migrants in Libyan detention centres and in the hands of smugglers, where they face beatings and abuse, aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said.

Cristophe Biteau, an Doctors without Borders (MSF) mission leader in Libya, said everyone intercepted by the Libyan coastguard - about 10,789 people this year - ended up held indefinitely in centres run by the Tripoli government.

"With fewer rescue ships and the summer surge in departures, the situation in the centres will get worse and worse," Biteau said.

Italy's new far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who took office on June 1, has said the rescue ships are no longer welcome on his shores, arguing that the country had already taken more than its fair share of migrants.

He has also questioned migrants' reports of abuse in Libya -- reports that are denied by Libyan authorities who have accused aid groups of encouraging migrants to make the dangerous crossing from North Africa to Europe through their well-publicised rescues.

International Organization for Migration (IOM) chief William Lacy Swing on Friday met Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Seraj in Tripoli and appealed to him that migrants "not be put in detention centres", a statement said.

Neither Salvini nor Libyan authorities immediately responded to the criticism on Friday.

MSF said between 5,000 and 7,000 people are held in seven official centres in Tripoli that are already overcrowded and unsanitary, with scabies and tuberculosis common.

There are 17 government detention facilities across all of Libya, and migrants and humanitarian groups have repeatedly described beatings and inhumane conditions.

Overall, about 700,000 migrants are estimated to be in Libya, the International Organization for Migration says. No one knows how many are imprisoned in secret camps run by people smugglers, where conditions are worse than in the official ones, MSF said.

"Our perception about people coming from Libya is that the violence is widespread," Gianfranco De Maio, MSF's global supervisor for its treatment of torture victims, told Reuters.

"The recent increase in the number of people being intercepted is putting increasing pressure on the already overcrowded facilities," Roberto Mignone, the U.N. refugee agency's representative in Libya, said on Friday.

SCARS

Nigerian Charles Otokiti, 37, was rescued at sea after passing through Libya in 2016. Now living near Rome, he has scars on his legs and arms, the result, he says, of severe beatings with pipes by the very smugglers he paid to put him on a boat bound for Italy.

He said he was held for three months in a warehouse in Tripoli with about 700 others by guards who wore uniforms, though he was unsure who they worked for. They were fed once a day a ladle of stew in the palm of their hands.

"They beat us every day," he said. "I saw people beat to death." About Italy's policy to stop charity boats in a bid to keep migrants out, Otokiti said: "They should let them in as Pope Francis says."

On Friday the pope held a special mass for migrants and rescuers on the 5-year anniversary of his visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he first said the defence of migrants would be a major plank of his papacy.

"I thank the rescuers for embodying in our day the parable of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to save the life of the poor man beaten by bandits," the pope said, referring to a story told by Jesus in the New Testament.

"He didn't ask where he was from, his reasons for travelling or his documents ... he simply decided to care for him and save his life."

Italy's port closures to charity ships has coincided with an increase in the death rate of migrants at sea, though total arrivals from Libya have declined more than 85 percent this year from last.

From the start of June to July 2, 565 people, or 1 in 13 of those who set out from the Libyan coast, drowned or went missing, compared with 1 in 43 during the first five months of the year, said Matteo Villa, a research fellow for migration at Italy's Institute for Studies on International Politics (ISPI), a think tank.

Still Otokiti, a practicing Catholic, says he is thankful to live in Italy, which has given him asylum.

"Italy is the best for everything. We are going to stand as one, you understand, because Italy is a Christian land," he said.

(Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino in Rome and Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Crispian Balmer)

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Reuters