Meanwhile, at least 57 lives are lost in a shipwreck off Libya’s coast
THE MALTESE authorities deliberately left civilian rescuers searching for hours for 46 refugees that had already been picked up by the authorities.
Malta‘s Home Affairs Ministry confirmed today that an Armed Forces Malta (AFM) patrol boat had brought the people to safety around 9am this morning.
However, the Maltese maritime authorities had been informed about the boat in distress within its own search-and-rescue (SAR) zone hours before.
The 46 contacted the distress hotline network Alarm Phone on Sunday morning after they had already been at sea for two days, and had run out of fuel, water and food.
“We immediately informed all authorities to the distress case as well as the Ocean Viking and the Seabird,” Alarm Phone’s Deanna told The Civil Fleet today.
The Ocean Viking, a rescue ship operated by European charity SOS Mediterranee, searched all night and into the morning for the boat. German NGO Sea-Watch also sent its reconnaissance plane Seabird to help find the boat.
It wasn’t until this afternoon when Maltese media began publishing reports about the rescue that Alarm Phone, SOS Mediterranee and Sea-Watch learnt the 46 were finally safe.
“We don’t know exactly when the people were rescued,” Deanna said, “but AFM, as usual, didn’t inform anyone about a rescue operation.
“We’re really happy that the people were rescued by AFM, which is exceptional indeed when you consider how many people have tried to cross the Mediterranean and this is just their third rescue this year.
“AFM normally leaves the boats to continue onto Italy, which puts the people in danger, or they facilitate an illegal pushbacks to Libya with the so-called Libyan Coastguard or merchant vessels.
“The lack of communication by AFM is unacceptable. It keeps the relatives in a state of stress, thinking that the worst has happened.
“It’s also a waste of civilian rescuers’ resources. It means the Ocean Viking and the Seabird spent so much time searching for a boat that had already been rescued, when they could have been monitoring for other boats in distress.
“AFM does everything it can to sabotage civil fleet operations. It would have taken nothing for them to just send an email to the Ocean Viking, to Seabird, and us.
“This is clearly a political move and not just a small mistake or a lack of coordination. It shows their willingness to hinder our work both by their actions and inaction.”
This evening International Organisation for Migration (IOM) spokeswoman Safa Msehli warned of a disaster off Libya’s coast.
“A shipwreck off Libya claimed at least 57 lives today after a boat capsized near Khums,” Ms Msehli said.
“According to survivors brought to shore by fishermen and the coastguard, at least 20 women and two children were among those who drowned.”
Were civilian rescuers not left to search for a boat that was already safe, Alarm Phone’s Deanna told The Civil Fleet, these people may not have died.
“This could have been prevented,” she said. “The so-called Libyan Coastguards must have known about this. Why they didn’t ask the Ocean Viking for help?”
Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announced this afternoon that its rescue ship Geo Barents had been released 24 days after the Italian authorities detained it.
MSF said that it was relieved its ship was free, “we still see the repeated and protracted blockades of NGO ships through administrative detention as a targeted, punitive practice.
“We don’t believe our ship’s detention was consistently grounded in relevant maritime regulations. The interpretation of maritime law used by the Italian authorities compromises rescue obligations at sea.
“Our teams are now doing everything possible to be out to rescue people in distress in the central Mediterranean where, in the absence of state-led SAR, lives continue to be needlessly lost. We are determined to go back to this deadly sea border.”
Elsewhere the EU-supported Libyan Coastguards told the Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship, which was also recently released after weeks in Italian detention, to leave its waters.
The Libyans sent a message to the ship saying: “[According] to international laws… your availability in Libyan [SAR] region is not allowed until you get the permission… from [the] Libyan authority.”
Sea-Watch posted a screenshot of the message on social media this evening, and said: “With the so-called Libyan Coastguard illegally intercepting and shooting at people, we are not surprised that the Libyan authorities violate maritime law trying to stop us.
“We won’t be intimidated.”
In a message of solidarity, Italian rescuers Mediterranea: Saving Humans said: “Trying to intimidate the civilian rescue ship Sea Watch3, the so-called Libyan Coastguard is once again confirming itself as an illegitimate authority, responsible for crimes at sea, with which any cooperation is impossible.
“Our solidarity with Sea Watch.”
Top image shows the Ocean Viking rescue ship during a training operation at the weekend [Pic: Flavio Gasperini]