Italy reneged on its “legal and humanitarian obligations” when it did not allow a Maltese patrol boat with 171 rescued migrants on board to berth at Lampedusa, the Home Affairs Minister charged yesterday.

Using strong language to date, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici said Italy was “incorrect” when, on Thursday, it barred the patrol boat from disembarking the migrants at the closest safe port.

“The Italian authorities who a day earlier accused us of being incapable did not give simple humanitarian assistance when it was needed,” Dr Mifsud Bonnici said, referring to his Italian counterpart’s outburst on Thursday when he accused Malta of failing to assist a migrants’ boat that eventually capsized in the presence of Italian coastguard vessels.

The rescue on Thursday happened about 54 nautical miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa and 91 nautical miles southwest of Malta.

According to the captain of the Armed Forces of Malta patrol boat that conducted the rescue operation (see page 4), the migrants were on an overcrowded fishing boat that was “rolling dangerously” because of the rough sea.

The patrol boat was in the area while searching for possible survivors from Wednesday’s tragedy when about 250 migrants are believed to have drowned after their boat capsized. The operation to transfer the migrants to the patrol boat took almost two hours and Malta has insisted the Italian coastguard only responded to requests for assistance after the operation was complete.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said the patrol boat then steamed towards Lampedusa with the migrants on board but the Italian authorities refused it entry, claiming the island was “full and could not provide medical assistance”.

“I cannot understand this argument because, according to media reports, today (yesterday) only 84 migrants remained on Lampedusa,” he said.

Rescued migrants

The patrol boat remained outside Lampedusa’s territorial waters (14 nautical miles) for some 90 minutes when a decision was taken by the authorities to order the boat back to Malta.

The migrants were landed at the army’s maritime base in Hay Wharf yesterday at 5 a.m. after an eight-hour sea journey.

The migrants claimed to be Eritrean and, for the first time, Libyan.

According to the police, the group of 171 was made up of 151 men, 17 women and three children.

Timeline of a rescue

Thursday

10.29 a.m. Italian coastguard headquarters in Rome inform the Maltese rescue centre two Italian fishing boats sighted a 10-metre boat laden with people heading towards Lampedusa. AFM patrol boat P61 is directed to the area. The migrants’ boat is intercepted some 54 nautical miles south of Lampedusa.

3.32 p.m. AFM personnel confirm the wooden boat is experiencing engine problems. Instructions are given for migrants to be transferred to patrol boat.

3.55 p.m. Transfer of migrants to P61 starts.

4.32 p.m. Malta’s rescue centre requests support from Italian coastguard to quicken the rescue operation because of the bad sea conditions. Italians do not respond.

6.12 p.m. The rescue operation is complete and P61 starts its voyage towards Lampedusa, the closest safe port.

6.15 p.m. Italians respond to Malta’s previous request saying the closest boat they have is 45 minutes away.

8.37 p.m. Italians inform Malta P61 does not have permission to enter Lampedusa.

9 p.m. P61 arrives outside Lampedusa’s territorial waters.

10.36 p.m. After several failed attempts to persuade Italy to allow the patrol boat in, Malta orders the P61 to return to Hay Wharf with the migrants on board.

Friday

5 a.m. P61 docks at Hay Wharf and disembarks the 171 migrants.

Source: AFM

ksansone@timesofmalta.com

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