Malta's army commander yesterday admitted soldiers provided fuel to five Eritrean migrants who were stranded at sea on a rubber dinghy, but said there were no indications that any other people had been aboard the vessel.
Brigadier Carmel Vassallo said that when an Armed Forces patrol boat went to assist the dinghy the four men and one woman were looking "relatively fresh" and the dinghy appeared to be as "good as new".
Responding to the migrants' claims that 73 people on board the vessel had died, Brig. Vassallo said there was no evidence to suggest this or that the dinghy had been at sea for 20 days as alleged by the five Eritreans.
Eritreans living in Malta and other European countries, possibly related to the victims, had sent an e-mail to alert the Maltese authorities that a boat carrying around 80 migrants had left from Libya on July 29 but had not reached any destination.
The army's description of the immigrants' state of well-being seems to be corroborated by an Italian government doctor who was on the ground when the migrants arrived in Lampedusa on Thursday.
Dr Valeska Padovese told The Sunday Times: "They must be confusing the dates. They arrived in a bad condition, but if they were so long at sea they would have never arrived, especially with the August heat.
"The food and water may have helped, but not to such an extent. They were dehydrated, but not as much as they should have been."
The doctor also corroborated the army's statement that the migrants were clean-shaven - adding that even if they were as young as 17, after 20 days at sea they would have grown some stubble.
Since the incident came to light last Wednesday, there has been scant information amid two seemingly different versions of what might have happened at sea (see factbox).
The Maltese authorities gave a full account of the incident for the first time yesterday.
Video footage and photos of the AFM's encounter with the dinghy will not be released by the army because it was a Frontex operation and the AFM has no rights over them.
Foreign Minister Tonio Borg told a news conference Malta and Italy were not to blame "if 73 migrants did die".
Dr Borg said: "When the dinghy was spotted for the first time by an aircraft that forms part of the Frontex mission it was in the Libyan search and rescue area and had only five people on board."
The army then dispatched a patrol boat to the area to offer assistance, but according to the army commander the migrants refused to be brought ashore to Malta.
Soldiers then refuelled the dinghy, provided the immigrants with food and life jackets and monitored the rest of their journey towards Lampedusa.
"At no point did we lose sight of them," Brig. Vassallo said, insisting that on its own, a dinghy without fuel did not qualify as a vessel in distress.
It was the army's opinion that the eight corpses spotted floating in the past few days in the same area did not come from the dinghy since they were in an advanced state of decomposition.
Brig. Vassallo admitted that five people on a large dinghy was a strange occurrence since normally such boats were overloaded with tens of people.
He could not offer an explanation but suggested that the migrants "could have been dropped by some other boat into the dinghy".
Dr Padovese also found it "strange" that no dead bodies were found on the dinghy since the immigrants would not have had the energy to throw them overboard.
However, the immigrants were still traumatised and three of them are not speaking at all, so she said it was also hard to believe that their story was completely made up. Two of the migrants may be transferred to Sicily because their condition has deteriorated.
Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici said Malta was ready to cooperate with any independent Italian judicial authority that wanted to investigate this case.
The different versions
Migrants' version according to Italian reports and sources
Left Libya at the end of July with 78 people on board.
Ran out of fuel after two days.
Ran out of food and water after five days.
People started to die of dehydration and starvation.
Several boats ignored their calls for help.
One fishing boat gave them food and water five days before being saved.
Maltese patrol boat gave them fuel, started their engine and left them alone, despite their condition, to find their way to Lampedusa.
The migrants claimed to be at sea for more than 20 days.
Dinghy was seen in Libyan search and rescue area last Wednesday by Frontex aircraft.
Patrol boat and AFM dinghy approached the boat soon after.
Migrants refused to be saved and only asked for food, water and fuel.
Migrants were healthy, clean-shaven and wanted to go to Italy.
Soldiers provided food, water and life jackets.
The dinghy looked as good as new and the migrants were not in distress.
Soldiers gave them fuel and started their engine.
Soldiers escorted them all the way to the territorial waters of Lampedusa.
On Thursday morning, Italian authorities were informed that the boat was entering its waters.
AFM never abandoned them.
Eight corpses have been sighted since but none were recovered.
The dinghy were clean and showed no indications of having hosted 80 people at any time.
Mysteries and theories
How many people were there on board?
Immigrants said that there were 73 others on board. The army says the dinghy showed no indications of having so many other migrants.
Usually, dead bodies are kept on board because migrants would not have the energy to throw them overboard.
So far only eight corpses have been found and these may have been unrelated to the incident.
Eritrean nationals in Europe were aware that a boat carrying some 80 Eritreans had left Libya at the end of July.
Did they refuse to be rescued?
According to Italian media, the immigrants had asked several vessels for help but were always ignored except for one fishing boat that provided food and water.
The army says that the migrants were determined to go to Italy and refused to be rescued.
If the immigrants were the last survivors of a boat of 80 they would have probably agreed to be rescued for fear of dying. However, if the army was escorting them, they may have felt safe enough to finish their journey in the hope of reaching their intended destination.
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