The European Commission will listen to the version of Libyan partners about the incident that occurred with the NGO SOS Mediterranee boat Ocean Viking on Saturday (25 March), Commission spokesperson Peter Stano told the press on Monday.
SOS Mediterranee said the Libyan coastguard approached their rescue ship while it was on its way to rescue some 80 migrants in distress. The NGO said the coastguard had approached them “dangerously” and threatened its crew “with guns and firing gunshots in the air”.
Questioned about the incident, Stano said: “We will see what the Libyan partners will tell us exactly about this incident […] then, there will be time and opportunity to talk about the necessary follow-up.”
The spokesperson explained that “the EU is not funding the Libyan coastguard or any other entity in Libya, we are providing assistance to help them to improve their performance when it comes to search and rescue, be it with vessels built with equipment or previously with training with the focus on exactly human rights”.
The controversial Libyan coastguard has been linked with human rights violations and many of its members are former militia or suspected of involvement in smuggling.
Reconstruction of events
On Saturday, the Ocean Viking was going to rescue roughly 80 people in distress in international waters. The crew was alerted by Alarm Phone, an NGO which provides a hotline for people in distress at sea.
As documented via Twitter by SOS Mediterranee, the Ocean Viking was stopped by the Libyan coastguard, who started shooting in the air.
The NGO explained in a press release on Saturday, “all attempts by the bridge’s team to contact the Libyan coastguard vessel via VHF [very high frequency] went unanswered while the crew of the Libyan coastguard patrol vessel started behaving aggressively, threatening with guns and firing gunshots in the air”.
This morning, @SOSMedIntl crew was threatened by guns by the EU-sponsored Libyan coastguard: #OceanViking was alerted to a rubber boat in distress in intl. waters off Libya by @alarm_phone. Patrol vessel 656 approached dangerously close, threatening the crew & shooting in the air pic.twitter.com/m1aKolRmjV
— SOS MEDITERRANEE (@SOSMedIntl) March 25, 2023
The Libyan vessel is an ex-Italian police boat of the Guardia di Finanza (GDF), currently named “656 Zawia”, as reported by Radio Radicale journalist Sergio Scandura on Twitter.
Gli spari, in acque internazionali contro la nave di soccorso ONG #OceanViking
sono della vedetta 656 "Zawia" ??
Vedetta Bigliani ex GDF ??
Vedetta Made In Italy: fornita dal governo italiano ?? a criminali libici spacciati per guardia costiera.
— Sergio Scandura (@scandura) March 25, 2023
This boat is part of a group of boats given to the coastguard by the EU and Italy to intercept migrants at sea, according to Scandura and the Ocean Viking crew.
However, the Commission did not confirm yet whether the boat was part of the EU programme.
The first delivery of five vessels occurred on 6 February in the presence of the Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, EU Enlargement and Neighbourhood Commissioner Oliver Varhely and Libya’s Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush.
Interception procedures on Saturday
After stopping the Ocean Viking, the Libyan coastguard intercepted the migrant boat, according to a video published by Sea Watch, which also operates a plane which monitors the situation in the Mediterranean.
According to the video, the Libyans were shooting towards the migrants’ boat and started different “life-threatening” manoeuvres, Sea Watch said on Twitter.
?Shots fired during rescue operation!
Today we witnessed the attack on the crew of @SOSMedIntl and people in a boat in distress. After a distress call from @alarm_phone, our search plane Seabird, Ocean Viking, and a ship of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard were on the scene. pic.twitter.com/ulW33x447W
— Sea-Watch International (@seawatch_intl) March 25, 2023
The Italian coastguard sent a press release blaming NGOs for “overloading the communication systems of the National Rescue Coordination Centre”.
The Italian authority said the incident “was not reported to the flag country, as required by the rules, but to the Italian Coordination Centre, also ending up overloading the Centre in particularly intense moments of relief operations in progress.”
However, both the SeaWatch, SOS Mediterranee and other NGOs in the Mediterranean Sea denounced the fact that national authorities, in particular Malta and Libya, do not promptly reply – or reply at all – to distress calls.
The Libyan coastguard has been accused of human rights violations, including torture, violence, murder, and hindering rescue operations of volunteer rescue groups.
Detailed information on the organisation is scarce, and in 2019, the Commission told InfoMigrants they were unaware of how many planes, ships, or personnel the coast guard has at its disposal.
In January 2022, the NGO Doctors Without the Borders reported they were threatened by the coast guard while trying to conduct a rescue.
Charities have called it a “Wild West” situation, adding live ammunition has been used against migrant boats. They also draw attention to a lack of accountability, information on the coastguard, and who receives the money they are sent.
There are also concerns that those sent back to Libya, with the help of the coastguard, face detention, torture, extortion and other forms of violence in detention centres.
[Edited by Alice Taylor/Zoran Radosavljevic]