Charity rescues 100 at sea despite Libyan coastguard threats

ROME (AFP) – A German charity said on Monday it had rescued some 100 people from a collapsing dinghy in the Mediterranean while being threatened by the Libyan coastguard.

Charity Mission Lifeline said Captain Claus-Peter Reisch and the crew of the German-flagged Eleonore vessel managed to complete the rescue despite a run-in with the coastguard, which wanted to take the migrants back to crisis-hit Libya.

“The dinghy’s air chambers were already defective and deflated,” it said on its website and Twitter account.

The charity said it was able to transfer most of the migrants from the dinghy to the Eleonore using inflatable boats, but was forced to speed up the rescue, potentially putting lives in danger.

“Some had to be transferred directly from the rubber dinghy to the Eleonore because time was running out. “A military boat of the Libyan coast guard approached at full speed… and threatened the crew,” it said, sparking panic among the migrants, who feared being forced to return to Libya.

The charity said the coastguard later backed down.

Rescued migrants are helped onto a ship in the Mediterranean Sea. PHOTO: AP

Another rescue boat, the Mare Jonio run by the Italian left-wing collective Mediterranea, tweeted it had “offered assistance” to the Eleonore, a new, 20-metre vessel with a capacity for 100 people.

Reisch also captained the charity’s previous vessel, the Lifeline, which found itself blocked at sea for days last June after rescuing 230 people off the Libyan coast.

The Lifeline, which sailed under a Dutch flag, was eventually given permission to dock in Malta, but it was seized and Reisch given a hefty fine for incorrect registration of the ship.

Reisch is appealing the fine and the vessel will not be released until the case is closed.

The charity was accused by EU leaders at the time of contravening international law by rescuing migrants when the Libyan coastguard was already intervening.

It was not clear where the Eleonore would take the newly rescued migrants, as Italy and Malta are both refusing to allow charity vessels to dock until other European countries agree to help out.

“Good that a new civil rescue asset is at sea, humiliating that EU states still don’t ensure quick disembarkations in line with the law,” fellow rescue charity Sea-Watch International tweeted on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Maltese army said Monday that it had rescued 162 migrants in two groups. The tiny island state takes in only those migrants found within its search and rescue zone.

NGOs have been scathing about the lack of coordination and solidarity among EU member states in dealing with migration standoffs in recent years, with tens of thousands of people making the perilous trip to Europe across the Mediterranean.