Libya’s coast guard fired warning shots over a humanitarian vessel as it attempted to rescue a rubber boat carrying migrants off Libya's coast, a sea rescue group said. The coast guard went on to return some 80 Europe-bound migrants to Libyan soil.
The incident Saturday in international waters was the latest reckless sea interception of migrants by the Libyan coast guard, which is trained and financed by the European Union to stem the influx of migrants to Europe, said the SOS Mediterranee group, whose vessel was warned off by the coast guard.
A spokesman for the coast guard didn’t respond to a request for comment, The Associated Press said.
The Ocean Viking, a rescue ship chartered and run by the non-profit SOS Mediterranee, was responding to a distress call to help the rubber boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean Sea when a Libyan coast guard vessel arrived at the scene, the group said.
The coast guard vessel “dangerously” approached the rescue ship, threatening its crew “with guns and firing gunshots in the air,” the SOS Mediterranee said in a statement.
The coast guard was caught on camera threatening the vessel and firing a weapon into the air. In the footage, the coast guard vessel is seen traveling at a high rate of speed before maneuvering, apparently to prevent the Ocean Viking from reaching the migrant boat. At one point, gunshots are heard.
“You can’t shoot at us. You can’t shoot at us. We’re leaving the waters now,” a person on the Ocean Viking is head saying.
Under threats, the Ocean Viking sailed away while the Libyan coast guard intercepted the boat and “forcibly” took the migrants back to war-wrecked Libya, it said.
Seabird 2, a civil surveillance plane owned by the German non-governmental organization Sea-Watch, reported seeing migrants who had fallen overboard from the rubber boat before the coast guard recovered them.
Saturday’s incident was the latest report from European NGOs operating in the Mediterranean Sea of threats or violent behavior by the Libyan coast guard.
The coast guard attempted in January to prevent an SOS Mediterranee fast boat from returning to the Ocean Viking after a rescue operation, according to the group. The boat managed to return the rescued migrants to the mother vessel safely, it said.
In October, the Sea-Watch accused the Libyan coast guard of threatening to shoot down their monitoring plane, Seabird.
The Libyan coast guard is trained and financed by the European Union, part of efforts to stem the flow of migrants from the North African country towards Italian shores.
Libya has in recent years emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants seeking a better quality of life in Europe. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Human traffickers have benefited from the chaos in Libya, smuggling in migrants across the country’s lengthy borders with six nations. The migrants are then packed into ill-equipped rubber boats and other vessels and set off on risky sea voyages.
So far this year, some 20,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, far exceeding the 6,000 who came in the same period in each of the preceding years, according to Interior Ministry figures.
Over the weekend alone, an estimated 3,000 migrants, many leaving on small boats from Tunisia's coastal city of Sfax, were rescued in the Mediterranean and were heading toward Italian ports to disembark, according to humanitarian rescue groups and news reports.