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Italy prosecutors seek probe into Libya coastguard attack on refugee boat

Images filmed last week showed a Libyan vessel shooting at and attempting to ram a small boat in the Mediterranean
Sea-Watch said the Libyan vessel was one of four boats donated by Italy to police the Mediterranean (Sea-Watch)

Italian prosecutors said on Wednesday that they were seeking permission from the foreign ministry to launch a probe into footage showing the Libyan coastguard firing at a boat carrying people across the Mediterranean.

If approved, the criminal investigation 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 30 June showed a Libyan coastguard vessel shooting at and attempting to ram the small boat in a failed bid to force it to return to Libya.

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Volunteers from Sea-Watch in the plane flying overhead could be heard radioing the Libyan coastguard that they were "dangerously close" to the smaller vessel. 

The volunteers appealed to them to keep their distance and stop shooting.

The 64 people on board the boat later landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa.

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

Patronaggio said he would, however, need "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.

'Footage speaks for itself'

Patronaggio 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.

The prosecutor may get the green light because the people on board the boat, 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.

There was no immediate response from the Libyan authorities, AFP said.

Sea-Watch spokeswoman Giorgia Linardi said that such a probe would be "the first time a European country has launched an investigation against the Libyan coastguard".

"The footage speaks for itself," she said.

"The violence to which the migrants were subjected is unacceptable and shows the need to stop aid to the so-called Libyan coastguard."

Place of safety

News of the potential probe, first reported by the Italian newspaper Avvenire, came ahead of a vote in Italy's parliament on renewing funding for the Libyan coastguard.

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

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But the coastguard 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 place of safety.

Returns skyrocket

The vessel filmed bearing down on the migrant boat in the Sea-Watch video - the PB 648, Ras Jadir - is one of four patrol boats Italy has supplied to Libya, according to the German rescue charity.

An Italian navy ship moored in the Libyan capital Tripoli provides technical support to the coastguard.

Radio Radicale journalist Sergio Scandura, whose tracking of the coastguard ship's movements has been included in Patronaggio's file, told AFP that 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, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

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

Ship detained

On Monday, French medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said one of its vessels that had rescued hundreds of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean last month had been detained in Italy, suggesting the seizure was politically motivated.

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MSF's research ship, Geo Barents, was seized on 2 July in Augusta, Sicily, during an inspection which found 22 deficiencies, the charity said in a statement.

While it was willing to comply with authorities' requirements, MSF added that such inspections "represent an opportunity for authorities to pursue political objectives under the guise of administrative procedures".

It said that Italian authorities had detained NGO vessels on 13 occasions since 2019, four of which were currently detained, "leaving almost no lifesaving activities in the central Mediterranean Sea".

Italian port authorities in Augusta declined to comment and the Transport and Infrastructure Ministry was not immediately available to comment, Reuters reported.