A private fishing vessel that delivered aid to Libya as part of a migrant pushback coordinated by the government was warned to switch off its lights to avoid being hit by a rocket while leaving the Tripoli port.

Migrants are only supposed to be disembarked at a safe port.

The United Nations had warned just days before the April pushback of migrants from Malta’s search and rescue area that Libya could not be considered a safe port due to the intensity of shelling.

An inquiry into the death of at least five migrants at sea led by Magistrate Joe Mifsud heard how Domenic Tanti, owner of the fishing vessel Salve Regina, wanted to get out of Libya as quickly as possible.

The Salve Regina was one of three trawlers hired by the government to carry out the operation, along with the Dar al Salam and Tremar.

The Dar al Salam, formerly called the Mae Yemenja, and owned by Maltese sea captain Carmelo Grech, brought the migrants to Libya. Photo: Manuel DeliaThe Dar al Salam, formerly called the Mae Yemenja, and owned by Maltese sea captain Carmelo Grech, brought the migrants to Libya. Photo: Manuel Delia

“Someone from the port told me, on the way out, don’t turn on any lights so they don’t hit you with a rocket,” Tanti said in his testimony to the magistrate.

Tanti said that he and his crew “were scared”, and just wanted to offload the “supplies” as quickly as possible so they could leave.

“I [left the port] with few lights as possible on, as it had already got dark,” he said.

The fishing vessel owner said he had reacted with incredulity when first instructed, while he was already out at sea, to head to Libya with the supplies.

“Go to Libya! Without a crew list… I’m just going to go in like that?”

Tanti said he was assured that he would not encounter any problems entering the port as all the necessary arrangements had been made.

Markings removed

The inquiry also heard testimony from Caremelo Grech, also known as Charles Grech, owner of the fishing vessel Dar al Salam.

Grech’s boat was used to ferry around 50 migrants and five dead bodies back to Libya after they had been picked up by the fishing vessel from a dinghy adrift in Malta’s search and rescue area.

The fishing vessel owner said the group of migrants, which included two babies, started to rebel when they heard they were being taken back to Libya after being out at sea for close to four days.

Grech confirmed to the inquiry that all orders, including to pick up the migrants and take them to Libya, came from the Armed Forces of Malta.

Carmelo Grech, also known as Charles, ferried 50 migrants and five dead bodies back to Libya in April.Carmelo Grech, also known as Charles, ferried 50 migrants and five dead bodies back to Libya in April.

Pictures of the Dar al Salam in Tripoli showed that certain markings identifying where the vessel was registered had been painted over.

Grech’s son, Ian, told the inquiry that this was done for “security reasons”, as the vessel is registered in Tobruk but entered Tripoli.

“We know that the West and the East [of Libya] are fighting for power. Given that my vessel is registered in Tobruk [in the East], how could I go into Tripoli?!”

Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi confirmed the AFM had been monitoring the dinghy in question for several days.

He said the private fishing vessels left Malta at around 9pm on April 12 to carry out the rescue operation.

Curmi said it was the Prime Minister’s Office that had hired the private vessels, after he had informed them that all of the Armed Forces of Malta’s assets were tied up in other operations.

At the time, 1,000 more migrants had left Libya and there were fears that lives would be lost if private vessels were not mobilised, he said.

Usually, private boats that are in the vicinity of migrant vessels in need of rescue are ordered to assist, but in this case there were none, he continued.

Curmi said the fishing vessel commissioned to rescue the migrants reached the stranded dinghy on April 14 at 2.30am.

By that time, seven migrants had died, with two of the bodies lost at sea.

The brigadier said a decision was taken to send the migrants back to Libya as both Malta’s and Italy’s ports were closed.

He said arrangements were made with the Libyan authorities to offer the migrants safe passage.

Curmi said the Armed Forces of Malta went over and above what was required of it since, seeing as there were no private vessels in the vicinity of the stranded dinghy, it had commissioned fishing vessels itself.

AFM did its job – Abela

In his testimony during the inquiry, Prime Minister Robert Abela was adamant that, even in hindsight, he could not identify anything more that the AFM could have done in this case.

The inquiry, triggered by a criminal complaint filed by rule of law NGO Repubblika, absolved the prime minister, brigadier and AFM of any blame for the migrant deaths. Claims that the AFM had purposely sabotaged another migrant boat were also thrown out.

Abela argued that the use of private vessels, which received the go-ahead from his office, had helped save lives.

He clarified that while he did not coordinate rescue missions himself, the AFM kept him informed about them.

“I always stuck to one principle. All rescue operations should take place as quickly as possible,” he said.

Abela admitted that former OPM official Neville Gafà had played a “limited role” in the operation due to his contacts with the Libyan authorities.

The prime minister said if Gafà testified that he had coordinated the rescue, this was not true.

Gafà’s testimony was not included in the inquiry report drawn up by the magistrate.

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