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Italy prosecutors eye Libyan coastguard probe

By AFP - Jul 07,2021 - Last updated at Jul 07,2021

ROME  — Italian prosecutors said on Wednesday they are seeking permission from the foreign ministry to investigate footage purportedly showing the Libyan coastguard firing at a migrant boat in the Mediterranean.

If approved, the criminal probe would be the first of its kind in Europe, according to German rescue charity Sea-Watch, whose surveillance plane took the video and which filed the complaint.

The images filmed on June 30 appeared to show a Libyan coastguard vessel shooting at and attempting to ram the small boat in a failed bid to force it to return to Libya.

The 64 migrants later landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa.

Luigi Patronaggio, head prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, told AFP he was looking into the allegations of "attempted shipwreck".

Patronaggio said he needs "authorisation from the Italian ministry of justice" to launch an official probe, "given that the object of the proceeding is a foreign authority".

"The alleged crime was committed in international waters, against foreigners," he said.

He confirmed he was seeking authorisation from the ministry to pursue the case but would not be drawn on how long it might take to obtain.

Patronaggio may get the green light because the migrants — who could testify to events — landed on Lampedusa, which falls under Agrigento’s jurisdiction.

Any investigation, however, would be complicated by the fact that Italy and Libya do not have a judicial cooperation pact.

Libyan condemnation 

In a statement about the video, the Libyan navy said the coast guard ship defied protocols by firing warning shots, and said its behaviour endangered the lives of both migrants and crew.

The coastguard command “will take all legal measures against those found to be involved in this incident”, it said.

And it “affirms its commitment to continue its missions and its obligation to save lives at sea and protect the Libyan coastline with respect for Libyan and international laws and provisions”.

Sea-Watch spokeswoman Giorgia Linardi said if Italy went ahead with the probe, it would be “the first time a European country has launched an investigation against the Libyan coastguard”.

“The violence to which the migrants were subjected is unacceptable and shows the need to stop aid to the so-called Libyan coast guard,” she said.

News of the potential probe, first reported by the Italian newspaper Avvenire, comes ahead of a vote in Italy’s parliament on renewing funding for the Libyan coast guard.

Italy and the European Union have for years been financing, training and providing aid to Libya’s coast guard to stop smugglers from taking migrants and refugees in flimsy boats across the Mediterranean to Europe.

But the coast guard has faced numerous accusations of appalling mistreatment of asylum seekers, and charities and human rights groups have severely criticised the arrangement.

Under international maritime law, rescued individuals should be disembarked at a place of safety. The UN’s human rights arm says Libya cannot be considered a port of safety.

Number of returns skyrockets 

The vessel filmed bearing down on the migrant boat in the Sea-Watch video is one of several patrol boats Italy has supplied to Libya.

An Italian navy ship moored in Tripoli provides technical support to the coast guard.

Radio Radicale journalist Sergio Scandura, whose tracking of the coast guard ship’s movements has been included in Patronaggio’s file, told AFP the episode took place near Italian waters — just 45 nautical miles from Lampedusa.

“It’s the first time a Tripoli patrol boat pushed that far north in pursuit of migrants,” he said.

The Libyan coastguard returned over 13,000 people to Libya between January and June this year, surpassing the number returned in all of 2020, UNHCR says.

Nearly 900 people have perished in the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

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