The Malta Independent 17 August 2022, Wednesday

Message to mariners warned that migrants required assistance

Malta Independent Sunday, 29 December 2013, 10:01 Last update: about 9 years ago

An international maritime warning issued on 11 October warned vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean that a migrant boat with more than 250 people on board was requesting assistance and asked nearby vessels to assist if possible. The Hydrolant message was sent at 1.34pm but the first vessel to arrive on the scene was the Maltese P61 patrol boat, at 5.51pm.

The boat that was punctured by Libyan machinegun fire the night before was slowly sinking and it capsized at 5.07pm, 44 minutes before help arrived.

Last week, former AFM commander Brigadier Martin Xuereb told this paper that he did not recall the Maltese authorities being told that the boat was sinking and, therefore that the incident was serious. “If the persons on board are not in imminent danger of losing their lives, the case would not necessarily be treated as urgent. In this case I do not recall the Italians telling us that the boat was sinking.”

But sources have pointed out to this paper that the majority of seafaring vessels – including Maltese and Italian military ships – as well as Coast Guard agencies, would have received the Hydrolant message. This means that both Italy and Malta knew from the start that the migrant boat was in peril. However, merchant and military vessels that were sailing a few kilometres away were not dispatched to help until it was too late. Malta was coordinating the rescue operation because the migrant boat was in Malta’s Search and Rescue Zone, around 60 kilometres south of Lampedusa. It is believed that there were actually around 400 people on board – all of them Syrian refugees – and while 200 were saved, another 270 drowned. Among them were dozens of children.


Closest vessels did not assist until too late

This information casts new doubts on the procedure followed on that fateful day by the Italian and Maltese search and rescue assets. The Italians were close but did not assist until it was too late, with an Italian Admiral claiming that Italian ships could not act without instructions from the coordinating country – Malta.

On the other hand the Malta RCC was informed about the migrant boat at 1pm by the Italian Coast Guard, which also pointed out that the Italian warship ITS Libra and a couple of merchant ships were in the vicinity. But for some reason these assets were not dispatched to assist immediately. Ironically, during a TVM interview on Friday, the new AFM commander Jeffrey Curmi said that merchant and other ships could be sent to help when coordinating SAR missions. He had just been asked if the Maritime Squadron has enough assets to carry out its duties. But a few minutes later, when speaking on the 11 October tragedy, he insisted that the AFM had “acted correctly and on time”.


Migrants said they were going to die

Many would disagree. One of them is Syrian medic Mohammad Jammo, who was the person who made the calls for help from the sinking boat. The medic, who lost two young sons in the tragedy claims that he called the Italian Coast Guard at 11am but they wasted two hours until finally telling him to call Malta. Italian Admiral Felicio Angrisano claims that Dr Jammo actually made the first call at 12.26pm (which was inaudible) and a second at 12.39, when he gave all the information to RCC Rome. The Admiral stated that Malta assumed control of the operation at 1pm.

Furthermore, Dr Jammo testified that when he got through to RCC Malta, he warned the officer on the other end of the line that the migrants “were heading towards their death”. The medic claimed that he made several other calls, including one at 3pm, when he was told by Malta that help would arrive in 45 minutes. It did not.


The warning Hydrolant message

Even if Dr Jammo’s testimony could somehow be discredited, the fact remains that Malta would have received the Hydrolant message. It read; “Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Vessel, 250 persons on board, REQUESTING ASSISTANCE. Vessels in vicinity requested to keep a sharp lookout, assist if possible.” All ships in the Eastern Mediterranean would have received this message, sent at 1.34pm.

It is known that apart from two merchant ships – the Stadt Bremenhaven and Tyrusland – the Italian warship ITS Libra was 27 miles away. It could have reached the migrant boat in just an hour and a half, but it was left to wander around at slow speed until after 5pm, when the migrants were drowning. The ship’s captain did not intervene and Malta and Italy did not request the ship to head to the area. There were also five Guardia Costiera and two Guardia di Finanza vessels in Lampedusa – not more than an hour and a half’s sail away – but these boats were, likewise not instructed to help.

Last week, Brigadier Xuereb refuted claims that the Maltese P61 was 230km away, insisting that the Maltese vessel was patrolling around 60km away. It is not known, then, why it took the P61 more than four hours to reach the migrant boat.


Malta, Italy’s versions different

What happened between 1pm and 4pm remains a mystery but the AFM said on 11 October that an AFM plane spotted the migrant boat at around 4pm. “A few minutes later the boat capsized and sank.” This was reiterated last week by Brigadier Martin Xuereb. But the timeline of events given by Admiral Angrisano says that Malta informed Italy about the capsizing at 5.22pm. Help was only requested at this time. The exact time of the incident is not known, however if the boat sank at 4pm and Italy was requested to help after 5pm more precious time could have been wasted. The Maltese patrol boat eventually arrived on site at 5.51pm and the ITS Libra made destination after 6pm. Some of the Coast Guard vessels from Lampedusa did not reach the site of the tragedy until after 8pm.

Over the past few weeks this paper sent questions to the Armed Forces, all of which remain unanswered to this day. Suprisingly, even the Italian Navy and Coast Guard have chosen not to reply to our questions.


Vessels in distress should be helped – UNHCR

When asked for a reaction, the United Nations’ refugee agency, through its Malta office said that it is a priority to strengthen SAR capacity in the Mediterranean to identify and rescue boats in distress. SAR activities need to be initiated wherever there are indications that a vessel or the conditions of the people on board, do not allow for safe travel, creating a risk that people may perish at sea.

“In the case of the tragedy on 11 October, there was a joint rescue operation organised by Malta and Italy. UNHCR expects that both countries are continually assessing the effectiveness of their cooperation in relation to rescue operations at sea.” UNHCR, however, did not reply to the most important question; should Italy and Malta conduct an inquiry into the tragedy?


Questions being raised in Brussels

PN MEP Roberta Metsola, who is one of many asking for a clarification from the government on the 11 October tragedy, told this paper yesterday that the Lampedusa reports are raising questions in Brussels. “I am following developments on this story with interest. There is no doubt in my mind that the government needs to clarify the matter as soon as possible. The story is generating questions also among MEPs who have asked me for clarification.”

Ms Metsola has also asked the government for answers, but like this newspaper, she has been met with a wall of silence. “I have asked the government for answers but to date have received no reply. I am waiting for a reply and will then evaluate what course of action to take to ensure we get the answers we all deserve.'

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