Libyan commander disciplined over bungled migrant rescue

Leaked documents cast light on problems with Italian deal to outsource anti-smuggler operations to Libya

FILE PHOTO: Migrants react as they rest on board the Sea Watch 3 off the coast of Siracusa, Italy, January 27, 2019. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane/File Photo
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A Libyan coastguard commander has been disciplined after a bungled rescue operation in the Mediterranean in which 20 migrants are feared to have died, leaked European Union documents show.

A report on the November 6, 2017, operation to rescue some 130 people from a flimsy raft highlighted poor professionalism of the frontline commanders for migrant rescue operations off the North African coast, according to documents secured by the website Politico.

The bungled mission focused attention on the deal struck between Italy and Libya in 2017 to pass responsibility to Tripoli to target people traffickers in the Mediterranean and rescue stricken migrants from its territorial waters.

Critics say that the deal’s primary motive was to stem the flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East that spiked at more than one million in 2015 and led to a political backlash that has contributed to a rise of anti-immigrant parties across Europe.

The censured commander was in charge of a patrol boat that arrived at high-speed when the raft started sinking off the coast of Libya in November 2017. Witnesses reported that the patrol boat caused a bow wave that sent many people into the water.

Video and phone footage of the chaotic rescue showed one migrant clinging to a ladder as the patrol boat sailed off at high speed.

A voice speaking on loudspeaker from the German ship Sea Watch 3 which arrived shortly afterwards can be heard on an audio recording saying: “Libyan coastguard, you’re killing a person, we want you to stop now, now, now.”

Libyan crew members were also captured pelting members of the German NGO ship with potatoes that arrived in small outboard boats to help the victims of the stricken vessel, according to a video reconstruction of events by Forensic Architecture, a London-based research agency.

The German ship rescued some 54 migrants, mainly from Nigeria, while the coastguard boat rescued 47, according to a six-month monitoring report of the anti-smuggler operation marked ‘EU Restricted’ and posted online by Politico.

Footage from more than ten cameras on board both ships and rescue craft showed some of the migrants slipping beneath calm waters and drowning during the chaos of the rescue operation.

The head of Operation Sophia, the EU naval mission in the Mediterranean tackling human trafficking and rescues, took up the matter nine days later with the head of the Libyan coastguard agency, Commodore Toumia, at a meeting in Tunis, according to the documents.

The Libyan coastguard chief “recognised that in some cases the professional behaviour of his commanding officers is not adequate and that there is a strong need to continue the training”, the report said.

Commodore Toumia confirmed three months later that his commanders had learned lessons so a similar incident would not happen again. He also said “that in one specific case disciplinary measures had been taken against one Patrol Boat Commander”, according to the report, but with no further details.

A spokesman for the EU mission declined to discuss the case on Friday. “I never comment on leaked documents,” he said.

The bungled operation in 2017 has resulted in 17 survivors filing a case with the European Court of Human Rights accusing Italy of breaching their rights by subcontracting the rescue to Libya.

Lawyers said those who were picked up by the coastguard were subject to torture and degrading treatment after being returned to Libyan detention centres.

The EU has provided naval support and training to the ill-equipped Libyan coastguard to carry out operations close to its shores.

Although the policy has contributed to migrant arrivals falling by 85 per cent in 2018 compared to 2015, the proportion of those who have died making the crossing has risen, UN figures show.

It comes as NGO vessels have been harried by the Italian government and wrapped up in regulatory and legal disputes, making it difficult for them to carry out operations.

The Sophia monitoring reports, which cover operations to mid-2018, said the “heavy burden” of saving lives allied to a “shortage of assets” had hampered the operation’s efforts against smugglers and facilitators, known as jackals.

It also said consideration should be given to allowing EU naval vessels to opt out of search and rescue missions when “actively conducting anti-smuggling operations against jackals in international waters”.