CAIRO -- Libya’s coast guard fired warning shots over a humanitarian vessel as it attempted to rescue a rubber boat carrying migrants off Libya's coast, a sea rescue group said. The coast guard went on to return some 80 Europe-bound migrants to Libyan soil.
The incident Saturday in international waters was the latest reckless sea interception of migrants by the Libyan coast guard, which is trained and financed by the European Union to stem the influx of migrants to Europe, said the SOS Mediterranee group, whose vessel was warned off by the coast guard.
A spokesman for the coast guard didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Italian coast guard said it had received a report about the incident, but complained that SOS Mediterranee didn't follow correct procedures in reporting it.
The Ocean Viking, a rescue ship chartered and run by the non-profit SOS Mediterranee, was responding to a distress call to help the rubber boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean Sea when a Libyan coast guard vessel arrived at the scene, the group said.
The Libyan coast guard vessel “dangerously” approached the rescue ship, threatening its crew “with guns and firing gunshots in the air,” the SOS Mediterranee said in a statement.
The coast guard was caught on camera threatening the vessel and firing a weapon into the air. In the footage, the coast guard vessel is seen traveling at a high rate of speed before maneuvering, apparently to prevent the Ocean Viking from reaching the migrant boat. At one point, gun shots are heard.
“You can’t shoot at us. You can’t shoot at us. We’re leaving the waters now,” a person on the Ocean Viking is heard saying.
Under threat, the Ocean Viking sailed away while the Libyan coast guard intercepted the boat and “forcibly” took the migrants back to war-wrecked Libya, it said.
Seabird 2, a civil surveillance plane owned by the German non-governmental organization Sea-Watch, reported seeing migrants who had fallen overboard from the rubber boat before the coast guard recovered them.
In further footage from the group's civil surveillance plane, the coast guard was seen maneuvering and approaching the rubber boat, before forcing the migrants to disembark on the coast guard vessel. Gunshots were also heard in the footage, with people on board the surveillance plane saying, “They are shooting in the water ... They are shooting at the people.”
Saturday’s incident was the latest report from European NGOs operating in the Mediterranean Sea of threats or violent behavior by the Libyan coast guard, which is trained and financed by the European Union, part of efforts to stem the flow of migrants from the North African country towards Italian shores.
Libya has in recent years emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants seeking a better quality of life in Europe. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Human traffickers have benefited from the chaos in Libya, smuggling in migrants across the country’s lengthy borders with six nations. The migrants are then packed into ill-equipped rubber boats and other vessels and set off on risky sea voyages.
So far this year, some 20,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, far exceeding the 6,000 who came in the same period in each of the preceding years, according to Interior Ministry figures.
Over the weekend alone, an estimated 3,300 migrants — many departing on small boats from Libya or Tunisia's coastal city of Sfax — were rescued in the Mediterranean and were heading toward Italian ports to disembark, the Italian coast guard said.
At least three rescues were conducted by the Louise Michel rescue ship, which is financed by the street artist Banksy. The group said its vessel was detained Friday off Lampedusa after it rescued 180 people in several operations. Thirty-four were plucked from the water after their boat capsized.
The Italian coast guard said the vessel had been seized because the crew disobeyed orders to head to a port in Trapani, Sicily after the first rescue and instead picked up other migrants in three other rescues. The coast guard said that disobedience put migrants at risk and complicated its own efforts to coordinate rescues during a particularly busy weekend.
“The instructions given to the NGO ship, given its small size, were also aimed at preventing it from taking on board so many people that would jeopardize both its safety and that of the migrant boats it would be rescuing,” the coast guard said in a statement.
It added that the NGO aircraft that were also sending reports of boats in distress “overloaded the communications system” of the Italian coordination center, duplicating alerts that government aircraft were already providing.
In recent months, the hard-line Italian government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has made it harder for humanitarian vessels to operate, often assigning ships to ports farther north after a single rescue, which the groups say limits their ability to save lives.
Meloni’s allies say the presence of so many rescue ships in the Mediterranean encourages migrants to risk their lives on smuggler boats.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.