What does the violent escalation of the so-called Libyan coastguard mean?

The armed attack by the Libyan patrol vessel Fezzan against the shipwrecked people and the rescuers of the MARE JONIO on April 4th is only the latest episode of the violent escalation of the so-called Libyan coast guard that has marked the last few months in the Central Mediterranean.

Among others, incidents in the last year include:

25th March 2023, when the Libyan authorities intervened during a rescue of the OCEAN VIKING and fired on the crew while they clubbed the shipwrecked people; 10th July, when the Libyan authorities intervened again against the OCEAN VIKING by firing on the people awaiting rescue, an event which also roused the attention of the European Commission which then asked for explanations and raised the alarm; 1st October, when Sea-Watch’s SEABIRD accused the Libyan Coast Guard of causing the sinking of a boat with 50 people on board, which capsized due to dangerous maneuvers; 27th October, when the SEA-EYE-4 ship carried out a rescue operation while the Libyan authorities intervened firing, causing people to fall into the water and endangering the lives of shipwrecked people including infants and pregnant women; 7th March 2024, when the ship SEA-EYE-4 was again seriously endangered while it carried out a rescue operation in which the Libyan authorities intervened with dangerous maneuvers and threats made with rifles.

“The policies of the Italian governments and European institutions have turned the central Mediterranean into a war zone,” remarked Denny Castiglione, Head of Mission of Mediterranea Saving Humans on board the ship MARE JONIO about the events of last April 4th. “It is extremely serious that the militias of the so-called Libyan coast guard have fired gunshots directly at the shipwrecked people in the water and the rescuers. These are true criminals against humanity,” he continued. 

On Friday, April 5th, 2024 the MARE JONIO (MJ) landed in the port of Pozzallo (Ragusa), assigned by the Italian Authorities for the disembarkation of the 56 people rescued the day before in international waters, and who were the target, together with the ship’s crew, of the violent intervention of a Libyan patrol boat around 17:00 on April 4th. Paradoxically – and without taking into consideration the testimonies of the Master and Head of Mission, nor the extensive photo, video and audio documentation – the ship was sanctioned for the violation of Decree Law Piantedosi with the usual 20 days of administrative detention and a fine of up to 10,000 euro. A choice that the same Minister of the Interior openly vindicated before Parliament, fully espousing the version of facts communicated in poorly written email from the self-styled “Libyan authorities.”

But let us go to the precise reconstruction of the facts.

The MJ departed from the port of Siracusa on Wednesday evening, April 3rd, for its sixteenth observation and rescue mission in the central Mediterranean, setting course in the early hours of dawn on Thursday, April 4th towards the SAR zone where the so-called “Libyan authorities” operate. At 13:45 and 15:16 she received by e-mail a notice from ALARM PHONE reporting a boat in distress with engine failure and about fifty people on board, adrift in international waters, 90 miles south of the island of Malta and 95 miles north of the Libyan town of Al-Khoms.

At 15:57 MJ listened to radio communications on VHF channel 16 from an air asset, later identified by us as aircraft AS1227 BE20 Icao: 4D206A of the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM), which launched may-day-relays of at least three cases, providing updated coordinates of the vessel in distress in position 34°18 N – 014°09 E. Despite repeated attempts to make contact, the aircraft did not respond to the MJ calls.

At 16:26 the MJ informed the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IT MRCC in Rome) that she would be heading to the indicated position to verify the situation of the vessel in distress. 

At 16:35 MJ spotted the boat in distress through binoculars and approached to check the situation. It was a fiberglass boat, overcrowded with people without any personal safety equipment, adrift with a broken-down engine and at imminent risk of sinking. The rescue team therefore proceeded to distribute life vests to each person on board.

During these initial assistance activities, however, a Libyan patrol boat arrived at high speed. It was the 658 ‘Fezzan’, one of the Corrubia class, formerly assets of the Guardia di Finanza, donated by the Italian government to the Libyan militia in Tripoli in 2018. The patrol boat already had several dozen people on deck presumably captured in previous interception operations at sea. The Libyan militiamen radioed the MJ and threatened to leave the boat. In the meantime, they began to perform dangerous maneuvers around the boat in distress. MJ replied by radio that, in compliance with the 1979 Hamburg SAR Convention, she was at that moment OSC (On-scene Coordinator) and was already proceeding to the rescue. 

Picture: The Libyan patrol vessel 658 “Fezzan” 

At this point the militiamen on deck brandished machine guns and began firing volleys into the air, causing panic among the people on the boat in distress and also among those on the patrol boat itself. The Libyan militiamen beat the people on board with whips and sticks, some threw themselves into the water and others were pushed out. Terrified by the scene, the people on board the fiberglass boat also threw themselves into the water.Within minutes there were dozens of people in the water. The crew of MJ RHIB Rescue Boat ABBA1 began the rescue of the castaways at sea. At this point the Libyan militiamen exploded several gunshots and machine-gun fire at MJ second RHIB Rescue Boat ABBA2, shots which fell in some cases less than a meter from the tubes. The Libyan patrol vessel did not respond to any admonition to respect the maritime law and to the repeated calls from MJ ship’s command to cease its highly dangerous behavior.

MJ crew, keeping calm, managed to complete the recovery of all people visible in the water and their safe transfer aboard the MARE JONIO at 17:25, including more than ten who managed to gain their freedom by jumping into the water from the deck of the Libyan patrol vessel and others who escaped capture by the militia tender.

On board MJ ship, the crew gave first aid to the rescued people: all were terrified and in shock at what had happened, many with hypothermia, vomiting, in some cases from salt water ingested at sea, nausea, clear signs of torture suffered during their detention in Libya, abrasions and lacerated wounds from beatings suffered by some on board the Fezzan.

Zone de Texte: The Libyan message, supported by the Italian government, is an attempt to take a further step in the dismantling of international law, as if to say “over these waters we rule”The people rescued on board MJ eventually turned out to be 56 (fifty-six), of which 45 (forty-five) came from the fiberglass boat linked to the case reported by ALARM PHONE (two people remained on board and were subsequently captured by Libyan militiamen) and 11 (eleven) managed to escape from the Libyan patrol vessel.

From the testimonies collected among the shipwrecked persons, it would appear that the so-called Libyan coast guard carried out, before arriving at the scene of our rescue, two operations of interception and capture, respectively, of approximately 85 and 15 persons from 2 other boats in distress that were in the area, all fleeing from Libya, for an estimated total of approximately one hundred persons. All 3 operations appear to have been guided from above by the aircraft of the Armed Forces of Malta, thus complicit in the deportation of these people.

“We are shocked by the level of violence meted out by the so-called Libyan coast guard. But at the same time proud to have saved at least 56 people from capture and deportation to the hell of Libya from which they were fleeing. We hold the Italian government and the European institutions directly responsible for what is happening at sea: the deadly collaboration with the Libyan militias must stop immediately. The ships of a European search and rescue mission must return to the sea and all the people trapped in Libya by Italian and European policies must be evacuated to Europe,” concludes Laura Marmorale, president of Mediterranea Saving Humans. 

A few days later, the hyper-active ambassador of Italy and the EU in Tripoli Nicola Orlando met with Commander of the so-called Libyan coast guard Admiral Reda Issa, with the aim of “improving Libya’s management of its borders”, by “building capacity and human rights-compliance.” “Recalling recent episodes – declares Mr. Orlando – I emphasized the imperative of complying with international law, proportionality and human rights requirements in the conduct of SAR operations at sea.” According to the Italian and EU ambassador, Adm. Issa “agreed and called for improved coordination with all actors to prevent incidents.

In the same days, there was the important decision of the Court of Crotone that confirmed the illegitimacy of the administrative detention of HUMANITY 1, with a very strong motivation: the activities of the so-called Libyan coast guard cannot be considered rescue operations safeguarding human lives, but rather interventions to capture and push people back to Libya. Never before had an Italian court ruled with such clarity.

It is precisely for this reason that the motivations of the violent Libyan escalation, and the substantial political cover offered to them by the Italian government and the European institutions, cannot be underestimated and seem rather to be of a strategic nature: not only the brutality of militias that need to be “civilized” by their partners in the externalization of borders; not only the effects of a general climate of “war on humans” at sea. But also, and above all, the contention to assert a sort of “armed sovereignty” over international waters: the Libyan message, supported by the Italian government, is an attempt to take a further step in the dismantling of international law, as if to say “over these waters we rule,” an attempt that must be challenged and stopped by every means available.

The desire for freedom of those who jumped into the water demands it!

30th April 2024

Mediterranea Saving Humans