The German aid group Sea Eye said yesterday it was suspending its migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean, citing security concerns after Libya barred foreign vessels from a stretch of water off its coast.
The announcement comes a day after Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it was halting the use of its largest boat in the area because of an "increasingly hostile environment for lifesaving rescue operations".
In a statement, Sea Eye said it was with "a heavy heart" that it had decided to follow suit after the Libyan government's "explicit threat against the private NGOs".
Tensions have risen since the Libyan navy on Thursday ordered foreign vessels to stay out of a coastal search-and-rescue zone, a measure it said was specifically aimed at non-governmental groups.
Libyan authorities have accused charities of aiding human smugglers with their rescues at sea, hampering efforts to crack down on the illegal migration route. The Libyan navy said its order to foreign ships to stay out of a coastal "search and rescue" zone for illegal migrants complies with international laws.
"All countries have their own search zones. The decision was taken according to international laws and regulations," Ayoub Qasim, the spokesman for the Libyan navy forces, said.
"This is within the work of the Libyan navy. We have notified the United Nations agencies," he told DPA news agency without details.
"Under these circumstances, a continuation of our rescue work is not currently possible. It would be irresponsible towards our crews," Sea Eye founder Michael Buschheuer said. But he cautioned that the retreat of the aid groups was putting lives at risk. "We leave behind a deadly gap in the Mediterranean," he warned.
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano however welcomed Libya's stepped-up efforts to curb the migrant flow. The Libyan government "is ready to put in place a search-and-rescue zone in its waters, work with Europe and invest in its coast guards," Alfano told La Stampa daily yesterday. "This sends a signal that the balance is being restored in the Mediterranean."
Italy, which has borne the brunt of Europe's migrant crisis this year, has itself moved to rein in NGOs helping the multinational rescue operations by making them sign up to a new code of conduct.
Six years since a revolution that toppled leader Moammar Gadhafi, Libya has become a key departure point for migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Tens of thousands of migrants have resorted to paying people traffickers for the journey, often on overcrowded and unseaworthy boats. Migrant aid ships have played a key role in assisting the rescue operations. Sea Eye says it has helped save some 12,000 lives since April 2016. Compiled from wires