About 100,000 Africans may try to cross from Libya into poverty-stricken Niger in coming weeks, many fearing death at the hands of Libyan rebels who think they are mercenaries, according to a U.N. report on Wednesday.
At least two sub-Saharan Africans are already reported to have been lynched in Benghazi on suspicion of being mercenaries for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, others fear being hunted down by insurgents, the report said.
Compiled by the U.N.'s humanitarian affairs coordination agency OCHA, it said more than 1,000 Africans had already crossed into Niger over the past week via the Dirkou border post and had reported that many others were too frightened to move.
Over the next month a total of up to 100,000 could reach Niger, it said.
U.N. officials said this would put a huge strain on the economy of the landlocked nation, a former French colony and cotton producer and one of the world's poorest countries.
The latest arrivals, some 500 who came on Tuesday from the Libyan capital Tripoli and the towns of Misrata and Sabah, said many sub-Saharans -- mainly migrants who had been working in Libya, were in hiding, according to OCHA.
"They have reported that many are blocked in houses with no chance of leaving and with no help, in Mursuk, Sabah, Misrata, Tripoli and Benghazi," a situation report from the agency said.
With continuing fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and the rebels, who hold much of eastern Libya, and signs of reprisals against migrants from countries to the south, "a huge flood of people towards Niger is feared," the report said.
It could be on a similar scale to the flight of hundreds of thousands of mainly Arab migrants from Libya into Tunisia and Egypt, whose presidents have already been overthrown in popular uprisings, it added.
The report was issued before the rebel National Libyan Council in Benghazi, the insurgent capital and oil port, said it believed Niger, Mali and Kenya were sending troops to support Gaddafi, who is directing his forces from Tripoli.
U.N. officials in Geneva said they feared this charge could lead to further attacks on African migrants in rebel held areas. Early in the uprising, groups opposed to Gaddafi said he was using mercenaries recruited from Niger, Mali and Chad.
The officials said it seemed unlikely the governments of any of these countries or Kenya would send forces to back Gaddafi now. All supported a U.N. General Assembly resolution on Tuesday condemning him for rights abuses.
Tens of thousands of migrants, mainly from western Africa, are believed to have been working in Libya, mainly in the oil industry and on building sites, fleeing poverty in their own countries. But no exact figures are available.