(Adds government's letter)
The Government has sent a letter signed by the Attorney General to Trevor Sullivan, the local agent of the tanker waiting outside Maltese waters with 102 immigrants on board, holding the agents responsible for any damages Malta may suffer.
The tanker picked up migrants near Libya, it was stopped from entering Maltese waters and is currently under army surveillance.
This evening, the ship's company appealed to the Italian and Maltese authorities to "urgently provide clear instructions for disembarkation of the rescued people" four of whom were pregnant and required medical assistance.
It said that those rescued, who claim to be from Ethiopia and Eritrea, included a baby and 20 women, one of them injured.
In its letter, the Government called on the ship's master to proceed to that location which represented the nearest place of safety at the time of rescue and to make arrangements with the competent local authorities of that place to disembark the rescued persons without further delay.
In a statement this morning, the Government said the tanker was instructed to turn back and take the migrants to the closest safe port of call, which was Libya. A Government spokesman said the tanker ignored instructions and continued on its way to Malta.
But the ship's company, Mantinia Shipping, said in a statement this evening the tanker was never instructed by the Italian, or any authority, to proceed to a Libyan port.
Earlier the Greek ship owners told timesofmalta.com that the ship captain was instructed to proceed on its course towards Malta by the Italian authorities.
However, this version was disputed by the Government. The spokesman insisted that the Italian rescue authorities in Rome issued instructions to MT Salamis “to proceed to the closest port of safety, being a port in Libya”. Later, the government published communication between the Maltese and Italian authorities to prove this. (See pdf link below.)
The spokesman said there were no instructions from the Italians for the ship to proceed to Malta. He said the tanker was stopped by the AFM 24 nautical miles off the island.
Sources said this was the second such incident last night after another group of 96 migrants were rescued by a Turkish cargo ship in the Libyan search and rescue zone.
The Turkish ship, Adakent, followed Italian rescue authorities instructions to rescue the immigrants and head towards Tripoli, which was the nearest port of call.
The Libyan government did not object and the migrants disembarked in the capital this morning.
But the Liberian-registered Salamis did not contact the Libyan authorities and opted to head to Malta rather than follow instructions. This was in breach of international regulations.
The Salamis picked up the migrants some 46.4 nautical miles off the Libyan coast and 140 nautical miles off Malta after it was requested to do so by the Italian authorities.
However, ship company representative Panaviopis Konstantopounos said that the Italian authorities had instructed the captain to assist in the rescue and proceed towards Malta, which was its original destination.
“What Malta does not understand is that the ship saved lives as it was obliged to do by international conventions. These are live people on board.” He said the ship was currently anchored some 24 nautical miles off Malta and prevented from moving by the Maltese army.
The ship had picked up the migrants soon after leaving Khoms in Libya.
The Maltese Government informed the captain that as the migrants were saved and were not in danger, it would not be allowed in territorial waters as it had been obliged to enter the closest port of call.
In its statement, Mantinia Shipping said it left Libya for Malta loaded with gasoil. After receiving a call from the Italian authorities, it proceeded to where it was directed and carried a search and rescue operation for the migrants, who it found on a damaged rubber boat shouting for help and waving white flags.
But in spite of further efforts to contact Rome, the Italian authorities never answered the ship's calls after the rescue so it proceeded on its way to Malta. Rome never replied to the vessel’s calls.
The vessel arrived near Malta's territorial waters at 8am today but was not allowed to enter Maltese waters.
In its statement the company said the vessel did not have the capacity or provisions and medical equipment to accommodate 102 people, not including the crew.
It stressed that throughout the operation, the vessel’s master complied with instructions given by the Italian authorities Rome and carried out its obligations according to law.
It said the authorities should take into account the particular circumstances of the case and guidelines developed by the IMO, the European Union and other relevant international guidelines covering persons rescued at sea.
They should also take into consideration the fact that the vessel was loaded with an inflammable petroleum cargo and only had safety equipment for 32 people.
The Government this evening published the letter it sent Mr Sullivan.
In the letter, the AG insisted that the ship's master was instructed to contact Libyan SAR authorities and given their contact details but chose to ignore the instructions.
The master's decision to proceed to Malta, the ship's next port of call, was in clear violation of the international obligations governing the disembarkation of rescued persons, the AG said.
“The master’s actions appear to have prioritised the commercial interests of the vessel and those of the owners/operators of the said vessel over international legal obligations. It further results that the decision taken by the master further exposed the rescued persons to delay in being disembarked in a place of safety."
The AG said that these actions led to a situation that was prejudicial to the Government as they created an expectation that Malta should shoulder international obligations which would never have been incumbent upon it had the master complied with the international legal regime and the instructions received.
In April 2009, a tanker which had rescued 140 migrants off Lampedusa was refused entry by both Italy and Malta for three days.
The Maltese government had insisted that the MV Pinar was obliged to take the migrants it had rescued to the nearest harbour, which was Lampedusa. The migrants were eventually taken by Lampedusa.
The Opposition had then supported the stance taken by the government.
OPPOSITION SUPPORTS GOVERNMENT ACTION
In a statement, the Opposition noted that the government was adopting the same position the previous government used to take in identical situations.
It said that on the basis of the facts given by the Government so far, it seemed that the closest safe port of call was Libya so Malta was acting in line with its international obligations.
The Opposition hoped the outcome of the situation would be a positive one.
PRESERVATION OF LIFE SHOULD BE THE TOPMOST PRIORITY - NGOS
Eight NGOs urged Italy and Malta to ensure that all decisions involving the fate of the migrants gave topmost priority to the preservation of their lives.
They said that from the information available, Libya ought to be responsible for the coordination of the rescue operation, and for ensuring the prompt disembarkation of the rescued migrants at a safe port.
However, if and how Libya responded to any distress call was still unclear and its possible lack of response would require Italy or Malta to assume rescue coordination responsibilities, depending on various factual considerations
and in accordance with international maritime law obligations.
Aditus, JRS, the Migrants’ Network for Equality, SOS Malta, Kopin, Integra Foundation, the Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants and the Organisation for Friendship in Diversity said:
"We remind Italy and Malta that the rescue operation should result in the migrants being disembarked at a safe port. We subscribe to, and strongly urge an interpretation of safe that is not limited to immediate physical safety but which also looks at the human rights situation the rescued persons would be exposed to.
"Will any rescued asylum-seekers have the opportunity to present their asylum claims in Libya, or will they be forcibly returned to their countries of origin? Will they be locked up in detention centres that violate their human dignity? Will they be exposed to risks of torture, rape, assault and other forms of physical and psychological violence? Will vulnerable individuals be provided with the necessary support?"
The NGOs applauded the "courage and commitment" shown by the Salamis’ captain and crew, and urged coastal states to take due consideration of the human and commercial strain such incidents placed on private vessels.
"Italy and Malta need to ensure that all the rescued persons are not returned to a territory where they would be exposed to severe human rights violations.
"Furthermore, we also urge the European Union to contribute to the prevention of these incidents by exploring means of supporting the search and rescue efforts of Italy and Malta.
"We also urge the Italian and Maltese authorities to publish an incident report," they said.