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Italian coastguard condemned for seizing fourth NGO refugee rescue ship over ‘safety’ concerns

SOS Mediterranee asks where the authorities' concerns were when they ignored the Ocean Viking's call for help for 11 days earlier this month

CIVIL refugee rescue organisations have condemned the Italian coastguard after its inspectors impounded another NGO rescue ship.

European charity SOS Mediterranee’s ship, the Ocean Viking, was impounded following an 11-hour inspection in Sicily, for allegedly carrying more “passengers” than it is certified to carry.

However, the charity warned that defining the rescued as passengers was a deliberate misinterpretation of the law.

“[The] people we bring to temporary safety on board the Ocean Viking are, according to maritime law, to be considered as survivors, people rescued from a situation of acute distress at sea, and are never to be considered as passengers.”

Wednesday’s inspection was the third carried out on the ship in Italy in over a year. Most ships are subjected to just one a year.

The charity’s director of operations Frederic Penard called the Italian authorities’ motives into question, asking why safety wasn’t more of a concern earlier this month when the Italian authorities ignored the Ocean Viking’s calls for a port to disembark the 180 rescued refugees on board for 11 days.

“What is clear to us now is that, over the past three months, the same argument over safety has been systematically used by Italian authorities to detain four NGO ships conducting search-and-rescue operations in the central Mediterranean,” Mr Penard said.

“There is a clear pattern being excessively and abusively applied in a continuous administrative harassment of NGOs, whose only aim is to prevent lifesaving activities from filling the void left by European states.”

Meanwhile, the German refugee rescue organisation Sea Watch — whose ship Sea Watch 3 is also detained in Sicily on similar grounds — urged the Italian government to stop trying to block its operations at sea and air.

Sea Watch’s legal adviser Giorgia Linardi said on Monday that the authorities were carrying out excessive checks on the charity’s monitoring plane Moonbird, causing delays to its missions.

“This [is happening] in a month where we sighted over 700 people in distress at sea in 13 flights,” Ms Linardi said.

“We flagged to the authorities the presence of these people as well as the presence of dead bodies that have been left at sea for weeks.

“This looks as a clear attempt to try once again to get rid of uncomfortable witnesses in the Mediterranean while Italy continues to support the so-called Libyan Coastguards in performing unlawful pushbacks.”

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