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Aquarius charity vows to sail again, perhaps under German flag

By AFP - Aug 15,2018 - Last updated at Aug 15,2018

A migrant smiles before disembarking from the MV Aquarius in the harbour of Valletta, Malta, on Wednesday (Reuters photo)

BERLIN — The charity running migrant rescue vessel Aquarius vowed on Wednesday to sail again as soon as possible in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya, if necessary under a German flag.

The Aquarius, chartered by French group SOS Mediterranee along with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), arrived in Malta on Wednesday after EU countries thrashed out a deal to take in the 141 migrants onboard, defusing another diplomatic standoff.

The government of Gibraltar this week announced that the ship would no longer be allowed to operate under the British territory's maritime flag.

At a Berlin press conference, SOS Mediterranee's Germany chapter denied claims that the Aquarius had been falsely registered as a research vessel. It said the vessel had been listed as a rescue ship with the International Maritime Organisation since the group chartered it two years ago.

"The Aquarius of course has the intention and obligation to set sail again as soon as possible, back into the rescue zone off the Libyan coast," the group's Germany General Director Verena Papke said, adding that the timing of the flag dispute "raises questions".

She said the charities hoped to settle the dispute but added: "In case we lose the Gibraltar flag for whatever reason, the Aquarius would probably keep sailing under the German flag. That basically is a scenario that is imaginable."

The Aquarius had rescued the migrants off the coast of Libya in two separate missions last Friday, only for Italy and Malta to refuse access to their ports.

On Tuesday, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain agreed to take in its latest passengers, along with 114 others who arrived in Malta on Monday.

Florian Westphal, general director of MSF Germany, demanded on Wednesday that, worldwide, "humanitarian work must be supported by state authorities, not obstructed or even criminalised".

He said that about half of the 141 migrants from mostly Eritrea and Somalia were minors, many of them malnourished and with wounds and scars on their bodies.

Some had reported having been beaten, tortured, enslaved or sexually abused in Libyan detention, Westphal said, reiterating that the charities would not send migrants back to Libya, considering it unsafe and "a red line" issue.

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