Rescue NGOs published footage of Libyan coastguards shooting in the direction of a boat carrying some 80 people, moments after firing warning shots close to a rescue ship in international waters.

According to SOS Mediterranee, on Saturday morning Libyan coastguard threatened the crew of Ocean Viking with firearms after the NGO rescue ship was alerted - by emergency hotline Alarm Phone - about a boat in distress off Libya.

The rescue ship was on its way to a rubber dinghy with some 80 people aboard when it was "dangerously" approached by Libyan coastguard patrol vessel 656.

All attempts by the bridge’s team to contact the Libyan coastguard vessel via VHF (very high frequency) went unanswered while the crew of the Libyan coastguard patrol vessel started firing gunshots in the air. 

Search plan SeaBird observed how Libyan Coast Guard first stopped the Ocean Viking of SOS Mediterranee from rescuing a distressed boat by firing in the air. Copyright: Christian Gohdes / Sea-Watch

Feeling that its safety was under threat, the Ocean Viking crew sailed away at full speed, while the Libyan coastguard continued firing shots, it said.

Surveillance aircraft Seabird 2, operated by a separate NGO - Sea Watch, monitored the distress case.

The 80 people were eventually intercepted by the Libyan coastguard, with Seabird 2 reporting that the coastguard shot in the direction of the migrant boat to force it to stop.

Seabird 2 crew also spotted people in the dinghy fall overboard.

They were eventually recovered. The rest gave up after more than an hour,  and were forcibly returned to Libya, Sebird 2 reported.

Libyan coastguard firing gunshots in the air. Video: Jérémie Lusseau/Morgane Lescot/SOS Mediterranee

SOS Mediterranee said this was the second time in 2023 that it had witnessed the Libyan coastguard "actively endangering the safety of people in distress at sea" as well as its crew.

In January, it recalled, the Libyan coastguard interfered with an ongoing rescue operation by preventing the search-and-rescue team aboard its fast rescue boat to return to the mothership. The survivors and crew eventually made it to the Ocean Viking. 

It said that so far, in 2023, at least 410 people had died or gone missing while crossing the central Mediterranean.

"Reports of devastating shipwrecks have recently shaken public opinion. Yet, all that can be heard now in response to the continuous loss of life in the central Mediterranean is gunshots, fired by assets financed and trained by EU member states." 

The NGO condemned "this escalation of violence and the deliberate compromising of our crew and shipwrecked people’s safety in the central Mediterranean by the EU-sponsored Libyan coastguard."

Earlier this month, Italian and Maltese authorities were accused of leaving people to die at sea after at least 30 migrants drowned when their boat capsized off Libya.

This year, Malta has taken in just one migrant from the sea as the number of arrivals to Italy has tripled.

The UN’s Mediterranean operational portal shows that one person landed in Malta compared with 20,535 in Italy, which is three times as many as in the same period in 2022.

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