The Armed Forces has brushed aside claims by NGOs that it forcibly returned a boat carrying 500 people to Libya, saying no such boat was found in the position flagged by activists. 

An AFM spokesperson told Times of Malta that it carried out multiple searches of the boat, based on multiple verifications of its location.

“No boat was sighted in the reported position,” the spokesperson said, adding that “Maltese authorities have no jurisdiction over any autonomous actions conducted in International waters.”

The AFM denial adds to the mystery surrounding the vessel, which was first flagged by sea rescue hotline NGO Alarm Phone.

Alarm Phone has said that the boat was carrying men, women and children from  Syria, Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan, that its engine stopped working after it entered Malta’s search and rescue zone last Tuesday, and that it then started taking in water

But other rescue vessels and surveillance plane operated by fellow sea rescue NGO Sea-Watch, were unable to locate the boat when they reached its last reported location. 

On Monday, Alarm Phone, Sea-Watch, Mediterranee Saving Humans and Emergency accused Maltese authorities of having pushed the vessel back to Libya, in violation of international law. 

They said relatives of people aboard the boat have said that people aboard were now being held in a prison in Benghazi. 

Times of Malta has not been able to speak to anyone who has seen the boat in distress or the relatives claiming the migrants are being detained in Benghazi. 

NGOs have repeatedly accused Maltese authorities of returning boats carrying migrants back to Libya. The AFM does not usually reply to media queries about search and rescue operations at sea. 

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