On Friday, the German maritime rescue NGO Sea-Watch called for an investigation into a Libyan coast guard interdiction in international waters, which resulted in the return of hundreds of maritime migrants to Libyan shores. In addition, the group posted video showing a potentially dangerous close-quarters situation in which the Libyan vessel cut across the bow of the rescue ship.
Italian MRCC authorities were involved in coordinating the operation, and they told Sea Watch to stand down and allow the Libyan vessel to take over on-scene command. Sea Watch complied, but observed that the interdiction may not have been lawful. "Maritime law states that persons in distress at sea must be taken to the nearest safe harbour," said the NGO. "Libya is a country of extreme political unrest and is not classified as safe by the EU." Migrants on the Libya-Italy route routinely report arbitrary detention, ransom demands and abuse during their transit through Libya.
In an interview with Reuters, Tripoli coastguard spokesperson Ayoub Qassem confirmed that the incident happened outside of Libya's territorial seas. He did not address the legality of returning the migrants to Libya, but he alleged that Sea-Watch "tried to hinder" the work of the coast guard vessel.
The composition of the refugee group aboard the intercepted boat was unusual. The majority of the maritime migrants departing Libya for Italy are from Sub-Saharan Africa, but Qassem told Reuters that this group was comprised of Bangladeshi, Moroccan and Tunisian nationals.
The bow crossing
The video appears to show a patrol boat of the Libyan Coast Guard crossing the bow of the Sea Watch 2 from her port side. As the Sea Watch 2 was the vessel to starboard – and was in the midst of recovering a workboat, rendering her unable to maneuver without endangering her own crew – the Libyan vessel's navigational decisions appear to violate COLREGS, Sea Watch contends.
The NGO also alleges that during its approach, the Libyan patrol boat faked its AIS signal to mimic a small product tanker, the Sovereign M. As of Friday the Sovereign M's AIS showed her off the coast of Libya in approximately the same area, restricted in ability to maneuver and awaiting orders. Her ownership and flag state records are unlisted in Equasis.
The incident is the latest in a string of allegedly unprofessional (and potentially dangerous) interactions between the Libyan Coast Guard and migrant rescue vessels, the most prominent of which involved an exchange of small-arms fire and an underway boarding. It comes as the European Commission is considering a request from Libyan forces for new armament and equipment, including modern vessels to update its ad hoc fleet of armed tugs and patrol boats from the Qaddafi era.