One of the men who survived a sinking boat this weekend is accusing the Armed Forces of Malta of a careless rescue effort that could have cost him and his mates dearly had it not been for a stroke of luck.

"We were basically abandoned," Mark Busuttil told The Times yesterday, a day after the ordeal. "Fortunately, it all went well. We were very lucky but not thanks to the rescue operations... I really hope something like this doesn't happen to someone else."

The 30-year-old was out at sea, some 16 miles North-West of Gozo, fishing early on Saturday morning with another three friends when the engine of their eight-metre long boat failed and they realised that water was gushing in.

"Before we knew it we were flooded... We tried throwing the water out with a bucket but it was useless. Within minutes a couple of waves caught the stern and we were sinking," he recalled.

He and his friend went down a few metres with the boat as they got caught in the canopy but then managed to swim to the surface. Even the small life raft they eventually mounted had to be cut free as it had been tied to the sinking boat.

They hardly had time to gather anything but Mr Busuttil says he sent a clear distress signal before going down.

"I radioed Valletta port on channel 16 and gave them our coordinates, the name of the boat and said clearly that we were sinking. They copied the information and, in fact, we saw (what we now know was) a patrol boat flashing its searchlight in our direction."

The boat, which remained in the area for 15 to 30 minutes, missed them, he said. "They patrolled the area for a brief while, drifted away for some time and returned close to where we were but then left. I can understand that they did not spot us. It was dark but we were hopeful that, at least, the rescue operation would continue at dawn and we would be safe but there was nothing of the sort... no boat, no aeroplane, nothing".

Luckily for the crew, which was huddled on a four-foot rubber dinghy, a fishing vessel that was towing a tuna pen was in sight. They had spotted the light coming from the ship at a distance and decided to row towards it, unaware initially that the boat was towing something.

They spent the night rowing towards it, before eventually catching up with the pen. The crew took them on board and called for a patrol boat, which arrived within an hour or so and took them to safety.

One of the crew members on the patrol boat told the survivors on the way back that the staff on the previous shift had left no instructions that there had been a sunken vessel the night before, Mr Agius said.

"What's more disturbing is that there seems to have been no signal sent out to the nearby ships to keep an eye out for survivors... and there were two ships nearby. We're safe only as we had a stroke of luck because the army abandoned us."

The Times contacted the Army for its reaction but no comment was forthcoming by the time of writing.

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