On board the Siem Pilot // Rescuers described horrific scenes of confusion and desperation in the sea off Libya as migrants swam towards an already full rescue ship, forcing it to pull away.
The Norwegian Siem Pilot and another aid boat rescued panicked migrants in the dark on Saturday, with only limited resources and in the face of aggressive people smugglers.
"I've never had a SAR [search and rescue] like it," said Pal Erik Teigen, the police officer in charge of the rescue operation. "We were in the process of transferring 1,000 migrants from the Okyroe [tanker] to the Siem Pilot when suddenly, in the dark, rubber boats appeared. It looked hopeless."
Migrants aboard one of the rubber boats desperately sought to reach the rescue ship, which by that point was full, motoring towards it while crying out for help. About two dozen people jumped into the water to swim towards the Siem Pilot, forcing the captain to pull back to deter others on the dinghy from doing the same.
Speedboats from the Siem Pilot later pulled the migrants from the sea and the dinghy and transferred them to the tanker to await rescue by another vessel, while the Medecins Sans Frontieres charity's Dignity vessel picked up the dead.
Mr Teigen and his team are part of a massive operation in the Mediterranean to rescue desperate migrants seeking to reach Europe.
Jan Erik Valen, an intelligence officer and crew member who provided security for the operation, part of the EU’s Frontex border force mission in the area, described the panic that greeted him as he boarded the overloaded tanker during the initial rescue.
“It was chaos on the tanker. They were pushing us towards the only way off the boat, coming from everywhere and pushing for lifejackets, arguing over them,” he said.
"Then they came up from behind us and we had to call for back-up. Other police officers from the Siem Pilot joined us with riot shields ... we were banging our sticks on pipes to make a lot of noise, and we had to hit a few of them."
Several of those who were rescued fainted and had to be dragged aboard the Siem Pilot.
“It was the craziest SAR I’ve ever experienced. At night-time, with a wooden boat, dinghies, people in the water, and a transfer from a tanker,” said Mr Valen.
The Siem Pilot team also had to contend with confrontational people traffickers.
“There was also a facilitator boat which was very aggressive all night. We used the ship’s search light to scare it off but it was determined to try and retrieve the dinghies we had rescued the migrants from,” said Mr Teigen.
The rescued migrants were mostly from sub-Saharan Africa along with a handful who said they were from Syria. Among them were several young children, as well as entire families and some unaccompanied teenagers.
They sat in tight rows on the bridge with only a thin sheet of webbing to protect them from the baking sun after dawn broke. Many wrapped themselves in orange blankets while their clothes dried nearby.
Scuffles broke out between some of the male migrants, prompting the captain to warn them: “If you don’t stop fighting I will disembark you from the boat!”
The number of people seeking to make the perilous sea journey to Europe has increased in recent weeks as winter approaches, bringing treacherous conditions to the Mediterranean and limiting the opportunities for launches.
About 2,400 migrants were rescued and 14 bodies pulled from the water on Saturday, according to the Italian coastguard .
Italy said on Friday that it had received more than 146,500 migrants so far this year.
Aboard another rescue ship, the Acquarius which is being operated by the SOS Mediterranee charity, migrants spoke about the horrors they had endured.
“I wasn’t aware of what I would have to go through along this journey ... But I promise I would never do this journey again,” said a tearful 33-year-old migrant from Guinea.
“I would never advise to anybody to do the trip that I have done to arrive here,” said a 30-year-old from Ivory Coast. “Even to my worst enemy, I would never tell him to do this. I wasn’t aware of the risks when I decided to leave.”
Up to 25 people are still missing, feared drowned after men on a Libyan coastguard speedboat attacked a dinghy packed with migrants during a rescue operation off the country’s coast on Friday.
* Agence France-Presse