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422 refugees make it to safety in Italy after a weekend of mass escape attempts from Libya

AFTER a weekend in which the EU-supported Libyan Coastguard intercepted close to 1,500 refugees as they tried to flee the country, over 400 others made it to safety on the opposite side of the Mediterranean today thanks to an NGO rescue ship.  

In just 48 hours from last Thursday morning, the crew of the Ocean Viking saved the lives of 424 people in rubber boats adrift in the central Mediterranean.

A pregnant woman in a critical medical condition and her partner were evacuated from the ship on Saturday by the Armed Forces of Malta. The two later tested positive for Covid-19.

Ten others survivors on board the ship later tested positive and were isolated to mitigate against a further spread.

Christine, the medical team leader on board the ship, said after the evacuation on Saturday that she was very concerned about the condition of the remaining survivors.

“A particularly dramatic case under observation is a young Sudanese man who suffered a severe head injury after being violently beaten in Libya a week ago,” she said.

“His wound is infected and half of his face deformed; he can only see with one eye. He’s in an extremely difficult situation.”

The Ocean Viking’s repeated request for a port was ignored until Sunday when the Italian authorities finally assigned Augusta in Sicily as the ship’s place of safety.

SOS Mediterranee, the European charity that operates the Ocean Viking, said the survivors were elated by the news.

“While we’re glad they will reach safety,” SOS Mediterranee said on Sunday, “we call on the EU to step up support for coastal states and re-establish dedicated rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean.”

The Ocean Viking’s search-and-rescue co-ordinator Luisa Albera said that the rescued have the same rights as anyone rescued at sea.

“This week, people tried fleeing Libya across the central Mediterranean in numbers unseen for months amid weather conditions favourable to departures.

“The team on the Ocean Viking saved the lives of 424 people, not only because it is our obligation as seafarers, but also because as human beings, we continue to believe in the right to life for everyone.”

The Italian health authorities had begun disembarking the unaccompanied minors from the Ocean Viking when the Star published this story.

Elsewhere in the central Mediterranean on Saturday, a refugee support vessel operated by Spanish NGO Open Arms, the Astral, located 45 people, including a pregnant woman, crammed into a flimsy rubber boat after spending three days at sea.

The Astral’s crew provided the survivors with life jackets, food, water and blankets until the Italian coastguard came and took them to Lampedusa.

Then on Sunday, the ship came upon the burnt out remains of another small boat floating in the sea.

“We can’t help thinking what will have become of the people on board,” the Open Arms said.  

“What we do know is that none of them deserved to risk their lives like this to get to a place to live in peace.”

Moonbird, a reconnaissance plane operated by German NGO Sea Watch, spotted around 12 boats — each with between 90 to 100 people on board — making a run from Libya in the last four days.

The plane’s tactical co-ordinator Kai von Kotze told the Star that only two of them made it to Lampedusa. The rest, he said, were intercepted and returned to Libya.   

“The so-called Libyan Coastguard was quite active this weekend,” Vom Kotze said.

“Thursday was an absolute madness. We spotted eight boats that day.

“On Friday, we found two more boats. One was intercepted. We witnessed that. The other one made it to Lampedusa in the end.

“On Saturday we witnessed another interception. And yesterday we witnessed another.

“We believe that one was co-ordinated by [the European border and coastguard agency] Frontex. From aircraft tracks we saw the Frontex aircraft, the Eagle 1.”

They could see the Eagle 1 circling an area for about an hour, he said, before the so-called Libyan Coastguard presumably intercepted whoever was there.

Sea Watch ships, the Sea Watch 3 and Sea Watch 4, remain stuck in Sicily after the Italian authorities blocked them from leaving port last year on a slew of supposed safety irregularities — including carrying too many life jackets.

Open Arms ships, the Open Arms and the Astral, are currently patrolling the central Mediterranean.


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