A Spanish migrant aid group said Tuesday that one of its rescue boats had been effectively detained by Libyan coastguard for nearly two hours in international waters. It was the latest in a series of incidents in which non-governmental organizations (NGOs), operating on the edge of Libyan waters to rescue migrants trying to cross from Africa to Italy, have been threatened by the Libyan coastguard.
Proactiva Open Arms said its vessel, the Golfo Azzurro, was some 24 nautical miles (44.5 kilometres) away from the Libyan coast at the time of the incident, well out of Libyan territorial waters which end 12 miles from the shore, according to websites which monitor maritime traffic. But they were within a 100-mile zone within which Libya has since last week demanded that it be able to carry out rescue operations. Tripoli wants to deter foreign rescue vessels, which it accuses of collusion with people trafficking networks.
"You are sailing in our waters for months now and you are conducting activities that are causing problems to Libyan state sovereignty," said a man who identified himself as part of the Libyan coastguard, speaking in English. "Therefore I ask you to alter your course towards Tripoli port. If you do not obey the orders right now... you will be targeted," the voice said.
Oscar Camps, Proactiva Open Arms' director of operations, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday: "They are threatening to open fire if we don't head in the direction of their territorial waters. It's detention, pure and simple.
Camps eventually sent another message explaining that the Libyans gave up after "1 hours and 44 minutes of sequestration and tension".
The Golfo Azzurro, a 37 meter-long boat which had arrived in the zone Tuesday morning after refuelling in Malta, then headed north again.
Defend Europe, a group which protests against the migrant rescue boats, also had a vessel in the area and claimed to have heard the Libyan coastguard tell the Golfo Azzurro to "leave Libyan waters immediately or follow them to Tripoli". "Leave and don't come back," they say they heard the Libyans tell the rescue vessel. The Libyan coastguard, contacted by AFP, could not immediately confirm the incident.
Proactiva Open Arms already announced last week threats from the Libyan coastguard which said it had fired shots in the air while telling its other vessel, Open Arms, to leave the area.
The Libyan navy announced last Thursday the creation of a new search and rescue zone under its direct responsibility, with access banned for foreign vessels. But such a decision should in principle be authorized by the International Maritime Organization, according to the Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti, suggesting the coastguard of chaos-torn Libya do not have the resources to patrol such a zone.
Recent actions by the Libyan coastguard have in part prompted three humanitarian groups - Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and Germany's Sea Eye - to suspend migrant rescue operations at sea in the past week because they felt threatened.