Italy and Malta bickered over the 11 October rescue operation, each insisting that the other was responsible to save 400 migrants from a sinking boat, another survivor of the tragedy has alleged.
In a Corriere della Sera blog, Rfaat Hazima, who is desperately calling for help to find his two lost sons – eight-year-old Mohamad and 12-year-old Ahmad– has given his own account of what happened on 11 October.
“I, my wife and our three children left Libya on 10 October. The following day we started calling for help at noon. We called the Italian and Maltese coast guard. The Italians answered and told us that we were closer to Malta. But the Maltese were telling us the exact opposite, because they claimed that we were closer to Italy.
After a number of tries the Italian Coast Guard told us that they would come to our rescue in 40 minutes but help did not arrive until 4.40pm. By that time we were in the water. At this point I lost sight of my three sons. A few minutes later I spotted my eldest – Anas – but there was no sign of Mohamad and Ahmad. We were alone in the water and there was no sign of the Italians or the Maltese. After 20 minutes I spotted my wife. We waited for another hour until a helicopter came over and dropped a life raft.
As soon as I put my wife and son onto the raft I went looking for my other sons. Then the Maltese boat arrived, followed by the Italian vessel a few minutes later. The Maltese were picking up adults and children, but the Italians were picking up only children. They refused to let me board. I kept searching for my children for around four hours and when I lost all hope I returned to my wife and my eldest son on the raft.
Later on we were picked up by the Maltese boat and we were taken to Malta. A certain Dr Maamun Abras told me that he had seen my sons on board the Italian patrol boat and assured me that they were alive and I would see them again. Two weeks after we arrived in Malta Italy sent pictures of the survivors but there were no pictures of my sons. A week later they sent us pictures of those who had died, but once again, there were no pictures of my sons.”
PM had hinted at disagreement
Mr Hazima’s testimony – although differing on some details – is similar to that given by Syrian medic Mohammad Jammo, who was the person who made the calls to Italy and Malta.
Dr Jammo claimed that Italy wasted two hours only to then tell him to call Malta. The call to Malta was allegedly made at around 1pm but the first Maltese patrol boat arrived on scene at 5.51pm. The boat capsized and sank shortly after 5pm.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had previously hinted that there was some disagreement between Malta and Italy on the day of the tragedy. Speaking on Xarabank in December Dr Muscat said that he had been asked for instructions by the former AFM commander, Brigadier Martin Xuereb, who said: “What are we going to do because according to the international rules we are not the ones who are supposed to take them? But we are seeing people go under one by one. They cannot fight the currents anymore. I said listen, forget all the rules and laws. Pick them up and bring them to Malta.”
Italy and Malta trade accusations, case ends up in Parliament
According to the Italian weekly news magazine L’Espresso, this telephone conversation indicates a clear accusation by the Maltese Prime Minister – “Italy did not do its duty to save 260 Syrian migrants, including some 60 children.”
The issue has now ended in the Italian Parliament, where Undersecretary for Defence Gioacchino Alfano was equally clear in his reply: “Malta was responsible to coordinate the rescue under the Hamburg Convention. Since Malta did not ask for Italy’s help, the Marina Militare and the Guardia Costiera could not intervene.”
L’Espresso reported that other members of the Italian Parliament presented a proposal to launch a parliamentary inquiry on the tragedy. They also signed a resolution that calls on the Italian government to optimise its search and rescue capabilities with its Maltese counterpart.”
On Dr Muscat’s interview on Xarabank, Mr Gatti says that the Maltese Prime Minister gave the impression that, to him, the Italians should have effected the rescue. “The rules that he told Brigadier Xuereb to ignore, however, say that Brigadier Xuereb should not have called the Prime Minister, but rather the Italian Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome. He should have asked them for help, but the call was only made after the migrant boat sank.”
Mr Gatti writes that the phone call between Muscat and Xuereb points to the hypothesis that Malta wanted to save the migrants by itself. “Bravado” on the part of the Maltese PM to raise his political image in the EU in the days following the 3 October tragedy. “This would explain the lack of decisions taken by the Maltese between 1 and 3pm, when the AFM plane finally took off. Two hours wasted until Joseph Muscat decided on what to do.”
AFM refuses to back up its claims
The Malta Independent has repeatedly sent questions to the Armed Forces of Malta and asked them to clarify what happened on the day. According to eye-witness accounts the AFM could have called on a number of Italian military or civilian vessels but no call was made. Similarly, the Italians had a number of warships and coast guard vessels in the vicinity but did not engage them in the action, citing that Malta had full responsibility because the migrant boat was inside Maltese SAR waters.
Earlier this month The Malta Independent on Sunday also reported that the Italians could have intentionally wasted time to let the boat enter the Maltese Search and Rescue Area.
The AFM have never answered our questions and has also turned down a Freedom of Information request made by MaltaToday. The only comments given by the AFM spokespersons and Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi were that the army “chose the best available options and acted in time to save lives.” Documentation that the AFM claims to have, and that supposedly verifies that the correct procedures were followed, remains unpublished to this day.
Following the TMID reports, the PN issued several statements calling upon the government to clarify what happened on 11 October. The government has refused to give out details and, for some reason has chosen to play the sympathy card by saying that these accusations are “hurtful” to the soldiers who risked their lives at sea to save others.