The Malta Independent 14 July 2024, Sunday
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Updated: AFM reacts to pushback claims, says no boat sighted in reported position

Tuesday, 30 May 2023, 11:48 Last update: about 2 years ago

Kevin Schembri Orland and Marc Galdes

Updated at 5.30pm with AFM's response

The Armed Forces of Malta said that a boat carrying around 500 migrants was not sighted at the position it was reported, amid allegations of a pushback.

A large boat with around 500 people that was in distress in Malta's Search and Rescue (SAR), and on Monday a number of NGOs reported that the boat had been seized and taken back to Libya by the Libyan authorities.

In a joint statement, NGOs Alarm Phone, Sea-Watch, Mediterranea Saving Humans and EMERGENCY accused Malta's Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) of coordinating an "illegal" pushback with the Libyan Authorities. According to the NGOs the boat had been towed back - over 330km - to the Libyan port of Benghazi. They also reported that relatives said that the 500 people were locked up in prison, in Benghazi.

Contacted by this newsroom for its reaction, the AFM said: "Malta wants to clarify that following multiple verifications of reported position through multiple searches, no boat was sighted in the reported position. Maltese authorities have no jurisdiction over any autonomous actions conducted in International Waters."

This newsroom then sent further questions to the AFM. This newsroom asked, among other things, whether the boat was found in another position and, if yes, was it in Malta's SAR zone; whether the AFM outright denies having any role in a pushback; whether the AFM had any contact with vessels urging them to take the 500 to Libya or suggesting that they do so; Whether there was any coordination between Malta and Libya on the search for this boat.

The only response the AFM gave was: "The AFM did not coordinate this case for reasons already explained and reiterates that it has no jurisdiction over autonomous actions by other States in international waters."

The NGOs statement had said that on 24 May Sea-Watch's aircraft Seabird 2, arrived in the area of the last known position and searched for the boat in distress, but the crew was unable to find the vessel. "In the night from 24 to 25 May, Life support of the NGO EMERGENCY and other vessels of the civil fleet reached the area and started searching for the disappeared boat during the whole day. No state asset helped in the search. Instead, authorities kept silent about the fate of the group. Also the aircraft Seabird 2 searched again for the missing boat on 25 May, even covering a larger area than the day before. The capacities of the NGO ships could have been utilized to save lives, rather than wasting them on a search that was already known to be futile."

The Associated Press reports that the group of migrants included 55 children and pregnant women.

The International Organization for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency told the Associated Press that 485 people were reportedly brought back to Benghazi by a vessel belonging to the self-styled Libyan National Army, a force in the east of the country led by military commander Khalifa Hifter. The UN agencies could not immediately confirm it was the same group of migrants reported by Alarm Phone.

The vessel that intercepted the 485 migrants, the Tareq Bin Zeyad, is named after a militia led by Hifter's son, the Associated Press reports. "In a report last year, Amnesty International accused the Tareq Bin Zeyad militia of subjecting 'thousands of Libyans and migrants to brutal and relentless abuses since 2016.'"

In their statement Monday, the NGOs said the Tareq Bin Zeyad had been spotted navigating in "peculiar patterns". "The last AIS signal of TAREQ BIN ZEYAD is issued close to the last known position of the distressed boat."

The Associated Press said that, separately, eastern Libyan forces said over the weekend they had intercepted a large vessel carrying over 800 migrants, including entire families and children. "The migrants were brought back to Libyan shores in Benghazi on May 26, three days after their vessel broke down in the Mediterranean. In a video posted by the same east-based forces on May 27 showing the disembarkation of migrants intercepted at sea, one migrant interviewed says that the vessel broke down off Maltese shores, and that the Libyan navy rushed to rescue them," the Associated Press. "The AP could not independently confirm if this was the same vessel that had reached out to the NGOs near Malta."


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