Deadly Incident on the Mediterranean Sea: Rescue Organisation Accuses Libyan Coast Guard

The private rescue organisation Sea Watch e.V. is pressing charges against the Libyan coast guard because of an attack during a rescue operation on the Mediterranean Sea. According to the organisation 30 refugees died after their dinghy was damaged by a patrol boat on 21 October 2016. The rescue team rates this incident as an attack on maritime transport.

The coast guard’s patrol boat with the registration mark ‚267‘ interfered with the rescue operation of the ‚Sea-Watch 2‘, which was instructed by the sea rescue control centre in Rome. Pictures of the professional photographer Christan Ditsch, who was on board, show the coast guard pushing between a speed boat of the ‚Sea-Watch 2‘ and the dinghy. The crew was prevented from provideing the refugees with life jackets. A person in uniform then came on board of the dinghy and started hitting the passengers. According to the Sea Watch organisation he tried to take away the outboard engine.

Already 5 Assaults on Rescue Operations

During the manoeuvre the Libyan unit damaged the dinghy so that almost all of the 150 passengers fell into the sea. A few weeks before, supposedly the same Libyan boat was involved in an attack on another rescue operation. At the time the boat ‚Iuventa‘ of the Organisation ‚Jugend Rettet e.V.‘ was boarded and the intruders aimed Kalaschnikovs at the activists. According to a media report the ‚Iuventa‘ was not addressed via the emergency channel before the boarding as is standard practice. The boat ‚267‘ that was involved in the two mentioned incidents can also be seen in a video of Al Jazeera.

On at least three other occasions the Libyan coast guard took action against Belgian and German rescue operations. On 24 April 2016 the ‚Sea-Watch 2‘ was intimidated with warning shots and eventually boarded. On the 17th of August 2016 the rescue boat ‚Bourbon Argos‘ of Doctors without Borders was fired at and boarded. 13 projectiles damaged the bridge of the rescue boat, the crew fled to a safety room. According to the German government the Libyan coast guard promised an internal investigation concerning the incident, however, the Foreign Office has received not further information since then.

On the 7th of September 2016 two assistants of the Bavarian rescue mission Sea-Eye were arrested at sea, supposedly because they entered Libyan territory. After three days the crew members were handed over to a naval ship of the German army that was taking part in the EU military mission EUNAVFOR MED. The rescue team’s speedboat remained confiscated.

Offender Possibly Trained on EU-Battleship

As far as known there will not be a criminal investigation concerning the incident of 21 October, the EU-military mission has done nothing concerning this matter. According to the German government the Foreign Office and the German embassy in Tripoli have ‚contacted various involved actors‘ after the incident became public. From this no consistent situation picture concerning the location and the ships involved can be drawn. The German government probably draws upon a Libyan marine spokesman, who initially denied the involvement of the Libyan coast guard, but admitted a few days later. The Sea-Watch crew says that the position data of the ship and the satellite system, as well as photo, log and video evidence clearly prove that the rescue boat was outside of Libyan territorial waters.

The legal complaint the Seawatch association wants to call to account the persons responsible for the death of the refugees – following § 6 nr. 3 of the legal code (StGB), covering the universal principle of jurisdiction. This means even though the incident happened in international waters German justice still can investigate. Possible investigations could be based on the violation of § 316 c StGB, which defines attacks on air and sea transport as an offence. The Libyan coast guard did not try to gain control over the mother ship ‚Sea-Watch 2‘, however, they did prevent the rescue operation of their longboat. The mandate given by the sea rescue control centre in Rome designated the ‚Sea-Watch 2‘ the rank of an ‚on Scene Coordinator‘. The term refers according to maritime law to the first ship on scene, to the best equipped ship or the ship that was instructed by the rescue control centre. ‚On Scene Coordinators‘ are allowed to issue orders to other ships, the Libyan coast guard would have been obliged to follow.

In the meantime the European Union has started the training of 78 members of the Libyan coast guard on an Italian battleship under the EUNAVFOR MED operation. According to media reports Libya plans the acquisition of drones for the surveillance of the sea area. The association Seawatch assumes that the perpetrators of the latest attack was part of this training scheme. Considering the small number of Libyan ships (8 patrol boats according to the German government) this assumption seems to be most likely.

(English translation by Viktoria Langer for Statewatch)

Image: Christian Ditsch