Camels graze in the desert in Ghat, about 1 360 km south of Tripoli. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Khartoum - Nine illegal immigrants have died among some 300 abandoned by smugglers in the scorching Sudanese-Libyan desert, with the others in poor condition, Khartoum's army said Wednesday.

“They were on their way to Libya as illegal immigrants,” spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad told AFP.

“The smugglers left them in the desert... on the border between Sudan and Libya,” he said, adding that all of the dead were Sudanese.

The others are from various nationalities and include Ethiopians, Eritreans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, Saad said.

Sudanese and Libyan troops rescued the migrants in a joint operation, the army spokesman said in a statement posted on the defence ministry's website.

In all, 319 people were abandoned in the desert, he said.

“Nine of them died and the others are in a bad condition. They are getting treatment and being transferred to Dongola,” a town about 500 kilometres (300 miles) northwest of Khartoum, he added.

The loosely governed desert region stretching from eastern Sudan up through Egypt to the Sinai Peninsula is a major route for African migrants trying to flee in search of a better life.

Thousands of Eritreans make the journey each year. Many head for Israel while others try to get to Europe.

“Some of them try to go through Egypt. Some of them try to go through Libya,” said a source familiar with the situation.

“They would try to cross the Mediterranean Sea via Libya.”

More than 350 migrants, mainly from Eritrea, died in an October shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa as they tried to reach Europe.

Economic migrants or refugees often rely on smugglers.

According to official data, some 600 refugees from authoritarian Eritrea alone make their way to neighbouring Sudan each month.

“The majority of them want to continue onwards,” the source said.

A Human Rights Watch report in February accused Egyptian and Sudanese security officers of colluding with traffickers accused of holding Eritrean migrants for ransom and torturing them.

Another rights group, Amnesty International, said last year that Eritrean refugees kidnapped in Sudan are raped, beaten, chained up and sometimes killed after being forcibly transported to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where they are held for ransom.

The London-based watchdog said it received “numerous reports” since 2011 that residents of the Shagarab refugee camp in Sudan's Kassala state, near the Eritrean border, had been abducted.

Sudanese officials in the border region with Eritrea have appealed for European Union help to combat human trafficking.

“We are confronted by organised groups,” Kassala governor Mohammed Yousef Adam told EU ambassadors visiting from Khartoum last November.

“And we need your help on this.”

EU ambassador Tomas Ulicny told the governor: “This is really an area which we want to cooperate more with Sudan and with all neighbouring countries”