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EU-supported Libyan Coastguards use guns to threaten refugee rescuers

Meanwhile, Italian authorities detain the Louise Michel after crew saves over 370 lives in three days and has run in with Libya’s so-called coastguards

THE EU-supported Libyan Coastguards threatened the crew of an activist-run refugee rescue ship with gunfire in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea this weekend.

The Ocean Viking, a rescue ship run by the European charity SOS Mediterranee, was alerted to a boat in distress on Saturday by the activist-run distress organisation Alarm Phone.

But, as it was making its way to the boat carrying about 80 people, the Libyan Coastguard patrol vessel 656 arrived on the scene, and approached the Ocean Viking in a dangerous manner.

All attempts by the ship’s crew to contact the vessel went unanswered, SOS Mediterranee said, and the Libyans “started behaving aggressively, threatening with guns and firing gunshots in the air.

Credit: Jérémie Lusseau / Morgane Lescot / SOS MEDITERRANEE

“As the safety of the crew was under threat, the Ocean Viking sailed away from the scene at full speed, while the Libyan Coastguard continued to fire shots.”

The event was also witnessed from the cockpit of the Seabird 2, a reconnaissance plane operated by fellow rescuers Sea-Watch.

Credits: Christian Gohdes/

The activist-run organisation shared video footage of the event, showing gunshots being fired from the Libyan vessel into the water as the refugees tried to escape them.

“With further gunfire and life-threatening manoeuvres, the [so-called] Libyan Coastguard attempted to stop the boat, with one person falling into the water,” Sea-Watch said on Saturday.

“All people were dragged back to Libya. Violence and a breach of international law – commissioned and paid for by the EU.”

This is the second time this year that the Libyan Coastguard — which is financed, equipped, and trained by EU member states — has threatened the Ocean Viking.

“In January, the Libyan coastguard interfered with an ongoing rescue operation by preventing the search-and-rescue team onboard our fast rescue boat [from returning] to the [Ocean Viking],” SOS Mediterranee said yesterday.

“Fortunately, the survivors and crew could finally embark on the Ocean Viking.”

SOS Mediterranee said it condemns this “escalation of violence and the deliberate compromising of our crew and shipwrecked people’s safety in the central Mediterranean by the EU-sponsored Libyan coastguard.

“A humanitarian response in the central Mediterranean in accordance with International and maritime law is long overdue.”

Saturday’s events are far from the first time the Libyan Coastguards have fired at rescue workers in the Mediterranean. In fact, they threatened to shoot another NGO rescue ship in January this year.

The Louise Michel rescue ship brings the rescued to Lampedusa [Pic: Louise Michel]

Meanwhile, the Italian authorities have detained another activist-run rescue ship after it saved the lives of over 370 people in the Mediterranean between Thursday and Saturday.

Late on March 23, Alarm Phone alerted the Louise Michel rescue ship to a dangerously overcrowded wooden boat carrying 190 passengers.

The crew found the boat handed out life jackets and stabilised the situation before handing everyone over to the much larger Geo Barents rescue ship, run by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

The Geo Barents has been assigned a port in Bari to take the 190 and was due to arrive this evening at the time of writing.

The Louise Michel also had a run in with the Libyan Coastguards on Friday.

A Libyan Coastguard vessel photographed by the Louise Michel’s crew [Pic: Louise Michel]

“This morning, the civilian aircraft Seabird […] spotted a wooden double-decker boat with 78 people on board,” the activists said. “The Louise Michel arrived, stabilised the boat and handed out life jackets.

“When a so-called Libyan coastguard patrol vessel arrived the situation deteriorated.

“Regardless of the dangerous interference, all 78 people could be taken aboard the Louise Michel. They are now being treated by our medical team.”

The crew went on to save 105 more lives in two rescue operations on Friday — one of which was carried out late at night and may have involved fatalities.

“We cannot be certain that everyone was recovered from the water,” Louise Michel said about the nighttime rescue yesterday.

“An Italian Coastguard vessel was also present, but ignored repeated calls for assistance for about 37 minutes before finally supporting, while people were in the water just in front of them.

“Even after responding to multiple mayday relays from an aircraft about boats in distress, the Italian [authorities] repeatedly pressured the crew not to react accordingly, but to sail north without engaging in another rescue.”

Following the disembarkation of the survivor’s on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Saturday, the Italian authorities detained the Louise Michel due to a supposed violation of the far-right government’s new anti-NGO rescue decree.

“24 hours after being told that our ship is detained, we still do not have an official written justification for the detention,” the activists said today.

“We know of dozens of boats in distress right in front of the island at this very moment, yet we are being prevented from assisting. This is unacceptable!

“European authorities are fully aware of people in distress in their [search-and-rescue] zone. Still, they block Louise Michel from leaving port and rendering assistance. Several lives were lost in two shipwrecks yesterday. These deaths are not an accident nor a tragedy. They are wanted.”

Elsewhere, Alarm Phone warned of a shipwreck off the coast of Morocco on Saturday.

The group said: “Alarm Phone members on the ground report nine survivors out of a total of 50 people on board. The pirogue* in which they had left Dakhla on Monday night capsized due to heavy waves.

“Our condolences to families and friends.”

It also warned yesterday that since Friday, its activists have been informed about “over 20 boats escaping Tunisia.

“Unable to reach the majority of boats, we are trying to establish which arrived, been intercepted, or capsized. Vast rescue efforts are needed!”

* A pirogue is a type of canoe made from a single tree trunk

Top image shows a Libyan Coastguard vessel baring down on the Ocean Viking [Pic: Christian Gohdes / Sea-Watch]

Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

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