Updated 5pm with rescue

Rescuers on Saturday retrieved 97 people who had been drifting on a wooden boat in Malta’s search and rescue zone without fuel or food, many crammed below decks. 

Sea Watch, which carried out the rescue, said Maltese authorities had informed them they were keeping the boat under observation but had not deemed it necessary to intervene. 

"They invited us to be coordinated by Germany, our flag state, if we wanted to help them. These people had been at sea for three days," Sea Watch said.

The rescue vessel said it now had 400 people aboard awaiting a safe port to disembark, as weather conditions deteriorated.

The people aboard the boat were in distress since they had not been able to eat or use their engine for some time, a spokesperson for emergency hotline Alarm Phone told Times of Malta earlier on Saturday.

“The man on the phone sounded very exhausted and says they really need help as they have been out at sea for so long,” she said, explaining that other details were hard to glean since they had trouble communicating.

While the NGO had contacted Malta’s rescue and coordination centre to notify them about the case, they had not received any reply.

“We are worried they will be left unattended for hours or even days as happened often before in Malta’s SAR.”

Questions sent to the Armed Forces of Malta, went unanswered at the time of writing.

The AFM has previously lashed out at claims that it allows boats in distress to drift without coming to their assistance, saying such claims are "false and unfounded." 

NGOs have noted that the AFM does not communicate with them or the media, with requests for information ignored.   

A couple of weeks ago a horrific image of a dead person lodged in an inflatable ring reflected the likely fate of 130 people missing and feared to have drowned after their rubber boat capsized in stormy seas.

NGOs Alarm Phone and SOS Mediterranee slammed neighbouring countries for having not rescued the migrants, even though the alarm about the boat was raised several hours earlier.

Another vessel in distress with 40 people onboard also went missing during the same period, and a spokesperson for Alarm Phone said they had had no update on the people, who are feared dead.

According to the UNHCR, 612 have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year, and up until 31 March, there were 65 recorded sea arrivals to Malta.

Correction May 1: Amended to reflect that the boat adrift is made of wood, not rubber

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