Libyan navy admits confrontation with charity's rescue boat

Navy spokesman reportedly says its patrol fired warning shots to MSF refugee vessel, but aid group says attackers fired at boat

The Libyan navy has admitted taking part in a confrontation with the refugee rescue boat the Bourbon Argos in international waters off the coast of Libya, following days of speculation about who attacked it.

A navy spokesman was reported to have claimed that Libyan forces had approached the rescue boat, chartered by the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), after its crew allegedly refused to identify themselves. But the navy denied that it had fired directly at the MSF boat, and claimed it did not board the boat itself.

“A Libyan coastguard patrol was about 25 miles offshore. She observed an unidentified vessel to which the order was given to stop, but [the vessel] did not comply,” Brig Ayoub Qassim, a spokesman for the Libyan navy, was quoted as saying by Radio France International.

Qassim added: “We fired five warning shots. We did not storm the boat, we are categorical [about that]. And the patrol then returned to the coast. We informed Operation Sophia” – an EU naval operation based off the coast of Libya – “of this incident and we have opened an investigation. We are the Libyan coastguard and the boat should stop and identify themselves.”

The Libyan navy’s claims are inconsistent with MSF’s account. The aid group says the attackers fired at least 13 bullets directly at its boat, some of which hit the ship’s bridge, or control room. MSF also says the attackers boarded the boat for approximately 50 minutes.

Qassim’s claims are further complicated by the fact that the Bourbon Argos has been working openly in international waters off the Libyan coast for over a year, rescuing tens of thousands of asylum seekers. Its activities have long been known to Libyan authorities, it is clearly branded with MSF’s logo, and its identity is visible on the automatic identification system (AIS) to which all ships and naval authorities have access.

The Libyan navy’s actions potentially complicate the relationship between the Libyan authorities and Europe. The navy currently protects and houses the administration of Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of Libya’s new internationally backed government, which has requested the support of western powers to bring stability to the war-torn country.

But in recent weeks Qassim has appeared keen to challenge this dynamic, criticising the EU for sending a naval fleet to the southern Mediterranean, known as Operation Sophia, that operates separately to MSF and other humanitarian groups. The fleet is nominally meant to apprehend people-smugglers, and also rescues migrants when necessary – but Qassim argued in a recent interview that the operation in fact had ulterior motives.

“Do we need military soldiers to intercept and rescue civilian boats and immigrants?” he reportedly asked in an interview with the Libyan Observer, a news website. “No, those civilians need care and protection, not army personnel with guns and pistols. I think when the EU saw that the southern part of the Mediterranean, which lies opposite to Europe, especially the part that overlooks north African countries, had been reshaped by the revolutions as well as the security unrest, it wanted to form a permanent military force to be in the Mediterranean at all times.”

In response to Qassim’s claims, MSF said its representatives were “currently engaging with the Libyan authorities in order to clarify what happened exactly during the incident and to ensure that similar events, that can put people in physical danger, do not occur in the future”. It added: “Our main priority is to guarantee that humanitarian organisations like ours are able to continue to safely conduct search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean with the aim of saving lives.”

MSF is one of several charities now working in the Mediterranean, independently of Operation Sophia. Collectively, they have rescued tens of thousands of asylum seekers in the past two years. Numbers of people crossing between Turkey and Greece have fallen drastically since March, but the level between Libya and Italy remains at near-record levels.

So far in 2016, more than 100,000 people have reached Italy from north Africa. More than 3,100 have drowned in the Mediterranean since the start of the year.


Patrick Kingsley and Chris Stephen

The GuardianTramp

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