AMSTERDAM/NEW YORK, MAY 24, 2017—While teams from the aid organizations Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée attempted to rescue people from boats in distress in the Mediterranean Sea on May 23, the Libyan coast guard approached the boats, intimidated the passengers and then fired gunshots into the air, threatening people's lives and creating mayhem, MSF said today.
The search and rescue ship Aquarius, which is jointly operated by teams from MSF and SOS Méditerranée, responded to multiple boats in distress after being alerted to their position. Rescue workers first distributed life jackets to the passengers on one boat and brought more than 20 people onboard the Aquarius before they had to provide assistance to another boat which was in a more critical situation.
In the meantime, a Libyan coast guard vessel with mounted weapons approached and personnel boarded one of the distressed boats. This caused mass panic to break out and ended with more than 60 people in the sea.
"When the Libyans pointed their weapons at us, asking us to give them all our money and cell phones and telling us to jump in the water, we did what they said and many of us jumped into the water," said one survivor of the incident. "I was not afraid; I preferred to die at sea rather than being repressed and to die in Libya."
Annemarie Loof, MSF operational manager, gave the following account of the incident:
"Two Libyan coast guards, wearing uniforms and armed, stepped onto one of the rubber boats. They took phones, money and other belongings from the passengers.
"People became panicked and felt threatened. The passengers were terrified from the aggressive conduct of the Libyan coast guards.
"Many passengers—who had luckily already received life jackets before the shooting began—jumped off the boats into the sea in fear. Our teams pulled 67 people out of the water as gunshots were fired in the air. It's a miracle that no one drowned or was injured.
"The Libyan coast guard showed very little regard for the wellbeing of the people in the boats in distress. Their behavior was reckless—if not directly threatening—to the people on the boats.
"Knowing that the Libyan coast guard has been receiving training and support from the European Union makes the incident all the more disturbing. We believe that the Italian and European authorities should not be providing support to the Libyan coastguard, either directly or indirectly. This support is further endangering people's lives.
"Despite the chaos, teams from MSF and SOS Méditerranée were able to safely bring 1,004 people, including a two-week-old baby, on board the Aquarius."