Aid group urges EU to reconsider Libya training after attack

A German aid group urged the European Union on Tuesday to reconsider its plans to train Libyan forces to conduct sea rescue operations after a vessel labeled as belonging to the country's coast guard attacked a dinghy full of migrants last week. Dozens of people were feared dead in the incident.

Sea-Watch, a privately-funded group that operates a rescue ship in the Mediterranean, said the attack early Friday showed it was important for the EU to scrutinize who exactly it was training and giving equipment to.

"We have called on them (the EU) to reconsider the training missions," said Ruben Neugebauer, a spokesman for the Berlin-based group. "We fear that in the course of this cooperation (with the Libyan coast guard) much more terrible things will happen."

Sea-Watch said it received a call from the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Center in Rome on Friday alerting it to a vessel in distress. When its rescue ship arrived at the scene it found a large inflatable boat crowded with about 150 people on board, said Neugebauer.

Photos released by the group show what appears to be a Libyan coast guard vessel with 15 crew on board — some armed — intercepting the rescue operation. In one picture a man in uniform is seen walking through the packed dinghy while another shows the alleged coast guards manipulating the front of the fragile boat.

Neugebauer said the dinghy ruptured shortly afterward, resulting in panic as migrants tried to reach the rescue vessel. About 120 people were rescued alive, while four bodies were recovered, he said.

While it wasn't clear what the Libyan crew were trying to do and which faction of the country's many armed groups they belonged to, their actions couldn't be interpreted as a bungled rescue attempt, said Neugebauer.

Sea-Watch said satellite tracking data show the incident happened almost 3 nautical miles outside Libya's territorial zone in international waters.

It said a court in Palermo, Sicily, has opened an investigation into the case after the survivors — mostly migrants from sub-Saharan Africa — were brought ashore.

The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that the number of migrants who died trying to cross the Mediterranean has reached 3,740 during the first ten months of the year. In all of 2015 a total of 3,771 deaths were recorded.

The Geneva-based agency said the death toll in 2016 was much higher than last year relative to the number of crossings, which were down by two-thirds, because more migrants were coming across the central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy.


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