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HEAVILY ARMED men fired shots over the heads of refugees and the crew of an NGO ship off the coast of Libya on Saturday while a rescue operation was taking place.
German charity Sea Eye’s ship, the Alan Kurdi, was notified of a refugee boat in distress by the activist network Alarm Phone on Saturday morning.
The crew headed towards the boat’s GPS position and found around 91 people sat atop a deflating rubber dinghy taking on water.
As the crew began rescue procedures, three speedboats with machine guns attached to the front arrived and attempted to stall the operation by sailing in between the refugees and the Alan Kurdi and sporadically fired their machine guns into the air and the water.
Sea Eye’s director of mission Jan Ribbeck told the Star today that the vessels had no identification and no radios but were flying the Libyan flag.
“They forced us to stop transferring people from the rubber boat to the Alan Kurdi. We had to return to our ship several times because of the shooting.
“People were jumping from the rubber boat into the water. The men pulled a few people out and put them in their boat but [the refugees] later jumped out and swam towards the Alan Kurdi.
“We rescued 91 people. We think that there weren’t any casualties because we didn’t see anyone drowning.”
Mr Ribbeck said the refugees and the crew were all safe now but exhausted.
“It will definitely not affect our work. We will continue with our missions. This one is already half-way done. We already have a crew training for the next mission.”
The Alan Kurdi’s crew initially believed the gunmen to be part of the EU-funded Libyan Coastguard.
Sea Eye chairman Gorden Isler tweeted on Saturday: “The crew of the Alan Kurdi is threatened at this moment by Libyan Coastguard.
“They’re threatening the crew with their guns … Some People are in the water. 92 people and 17 rescuers are in mortal danger!”
Hours later, however, a post from a Facebook page claiming to be from the Libyan Navy’s Office of Information and Maritime Culture denied the gunboats had anything to do with them.
“As Libyan naval forces and its coastguard, we categorically deny our relationship to this incident and confirm that our patrols did not intercept, shoot or threaten any NGOs,” the statement reads before calling on EU states to “curb” NGO rescue missions in the Mediterranean.
The Alan Kurdi remains in international waters and was yet to be assigned a port of safety when the Star went to print.
Meanwhile, no EU state has provided a port of safety to the Ocean Viking, an NGO migrant rescue ship operated by French charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, which rescued 104 people on October 18.
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