Up to 25 people were feared drowned on Friday after men on a Libyan coastguard speedboat attacked a packed migrant dinghy during a rescue operation off the country’s coast.
The German NGO Sea-Watch, which is part of a multinational search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, said the tragedy happened after its boat Sea-Watch 2 and a passing oil tanker were sent to help the distressed dinghy.
As the rescue operation proceeded just beyond Libyan territorial waters north of the port of Sabrata, a speedboat bearing the Libyan coastguard insignia arrived and tried to steal the dinghy’s outboard engine, said Sea-Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer.
The men aboard the speedboat, who spoke Arabic, beat some of the migrants with sticks and some clambered on to the dinghy, causing panic which resulted in one side of the boat deflating and most of the passengers ending up in the sea.
After the speedboat left, Sea-Watch said it rescued 120 people and recovered four corpses from the water.
Other bodies were seen floating but could not be recovered and it was estimated that between 15 and 25 of the people who had been on the board were unaccounted for.
Sea-Watch said its two speedboats had been “hassled in an aggressive way” during the attack, “preventing our crew from providing life vests and medical aid to the people in need”.
“All of these deaths could have been avoided but for this intervention,” Mr Neugebauer said.
He said the NGO did not know if the attackers were associated with the Libyan coastguard or had simply hijacked one of their boats.
But he said the incident highlighted the dangers inherent in European plans to train and equip the Libyan coastguard to be able to restrict the flow of migrant boats from the conflict-torn country towards Italy.
“It is hard to know who is doing what in Libya,” he said. “It shows once again it is not a good idea to build a whole European policy based on these guys. You never know whose hands the equipment will end up in.”
The EU training initiative is to begin at the end of this month following vetting of about 80 Libyan coastguard staff who are due to take part.
A spokesman for the Libyan navy and coastguard said investigators were looking into the incident, but coastguard oficials had said they were not involved in the reported attack.
“If confirmed it is very alarming news,” said Flavio Di Giacamo of the International Organisation for Migration.
According to the UN, at least 3,654 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, the bulk of them on the Libya-Italy route.
Attempts at the dangerous crossing are continuing despite worsening weather as winter approaches, with more than 2,400 migrants rescued off Libya since Sunday.
The Italian interior ministry said on Friday that more than 146,500 migrants had landed in Italy so far this year.
The number of arrivals is similar to that of the previous two years but the pressure on the country’s reception facilities is mounting as it has become harder for migrants to move on to other EU countries.