The German non-governmental organization Sea-Watch on Wednesday accused the Libyan coast guard of threatening to shoot down their monitoring plane that helps the group document the interception of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.
According to an audio recording of the threats, the Libyan coast guard vessel allegedly ordered the NGO plane to “get out of Libyan territorial” waters despite being in international waters where Malta is responsible for coordinating search and rescue operations. The incident occurred Tuesday.
“Please be informed that you are within European Search And Rescue Area, this is not Libyan territorial waters. This is not Libyan territorial waters, over,” a member of the Sea-Watch crew flying overhead responded to the Libyan authorities via radio.
“Get away from Libyan territorial otherwise we’ll shoot you by SAM missiles,” the Libyan Coast Guard vessel allegedly responds back, referring to the acronym for surface-to-air missiles.
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The Libyans ultimately pulled dozens of migrants onto their vessel and proceeded to shoot the rubber boat with what appeared to be incendiary ammunition, setting it on fire, according to footage of the interception released by Sea-Watch.
A spokesman for the Libyan coast guard did not immediately answer phone calls and messages seeking comment. Maltese authorities have also not yet responded to questions sent by AP via phone and email.
It is not the first time European NGOs operating in the Mediterranean reported threats or violent behavior by the Libyan Coast Guard. Last year, the European Union-funded and trained Libyan coast guard was caught on camera chasing and shooting in the direction of a migrant boat.
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But Sea-Watch says this is the first time that their plane, the Seabird, was targeted.
“Especially for the crew this was really scary,” said Felix Weiss, a spokesperson for Sea-Watch’s airborne operations. Weiss said Tuesday’s incident is making them reassess the risks with flying over the Central Mediterranean to document human rights violations.
Although Weiss said it’s unlikely Libyan authorities would follow through on their threats to bring down the plane, their behavior has become increasingly unpredictable and aggressive. “The so-called Libyan coast guard are carrying AK-47s with them and they have already used them several times,” Weiss said.
The Central Mediterranean is known as the deadliest migration route in the world with nearly 3,000 deaths since January 2021 according to the International Organization for Migration.
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The EU, Italy and Malta have for years been criticized for outsourcing migrant interceptions and rescues to the war-torn country.
Upon their return to Libya, migrants and refugees are held in government-run detention centers where torture, rape and killings have been documented extensively. A U.N. fact-finding mission has found that the systemic abuse of migrants there may amount to crimes against humanity.