11 Oc­to­ber 2013 mi­grant tragedy: Ital­ian navy of­fi­cers placed un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion

Malta Independent - - FRONT PAGE - David Lind­say

A num­ber of Ital­ian navy of­fi­cers have been placed un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion and are ex­pected to stand ac­cused be­fore the Ital­ian courts of man­slaugh­ter and fail­ure to ren­der as­sis­tance dur­ing the 11 Oc­to­ber 2013 mi­grant tragedy.

Malta was also in­volved in the botched res­cue at­tempt, which claimed the lives of 268 Syr­i­ans, many of whom were chil­dren, flee­ing hos­til­i­ties in the coun­try. Another 212 Syr­i­ans had been res­cued by the Ital­ian and Mal­tese navies in what was one of the worst cases wit­nessed in the Mediter­ranean, and cer­tainly the worst in which Malta was in­volved.

Sev­eral Ital­ian navy of­fi­cers are un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for man­slaugh­ter by Rome pub­lic pros­e­cu­tors Francesco Scavo and Santina Lionetti, who are seek­ing to de­ter­mine how ex­actly Ital­ian forces re­sponded, or failed to re­spond, on the fate­ful day and to at­tribute re­spon­si­bil­ity for the mass loss of life.

On the day in ques­tion, the boat full of Syr­ian refugees sank 113 kilo­me­tres from the Ital­ian is­land of Lampe­dusa and 218 kilo­me­tres from Malta, in Mal­tese ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters.

The ves­sel went down af­ter an ex­ces­sive num­ber of pas­sen­gers rushed to one side of their ves­sel as they were be­ing forced to board a di­lap­i­dated fish­ing ves­sel by un­scrupu­lous smug­glers from the Libyan port of Zuwara. The ship had also been hit by ma­chine gun fire from a Libyan pa­trol boat the night be­fore, punc­tur­ing its hull.

Malta’s in­volve­ment

Malta was also in­volved in the res­cue at­tempt and al­though the Mal­tese me­dia, in­clud­ing this news­room, had bom­barded the Armed Forces of Malta for in­for­ma­tion, as well as Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quests, such re­quests were con­sis­tently de­nied.

How­ever, doc­u­ments, maps and eye-wit­ness ac­counts seem to in­di­cate that the Mal­tese gov­ern­ment took what was the riski­est and least log­i­cal of the six choices it had avail­able on 11 Oc­to­ber 2013, when the coun­try was tasked with co­or­di­nat­ing the res­cue of hun­dreds of Syr­ian mi­grants off Lampe­dusa.

Any of the other five choices ar­guably could have pre­vented the mi­grant tragedy, but all the avail­able ev­i­dence leads to the con­clu­sion that Malta had tried to res­cue the mi­grants on its own, in­stead of ask­ing for the as­sis­tance that was avail­able.

This ill-fated de­ci­sion seems to have back­fired, and close to 270 Syr­ian men, women and chil­dren could very well have paid the ul­ti­mate price for that mis­take.

Eye-wit­ness ac­counts, of­fi­cial press re­leases and in­ves­ti­ga­tions by Ital­ian jour­nal­ist Fabrizio Gatti in the weeks af­ter the tragedy show that a num­ber of ves­sels – Ital­ian mil­i­tary, coast guard, fish­ing and mer­chant – could have reached the mi­grant boat hours be­fore it cap­sized and sank with hun­dreds of pas­sen­gers on board. But the Mal­tese au­thor­i­ties chose not to in­volve these as­sets and re­lied in­stead on send­ing an AFM pa­trol boat from 230 kilo­me­tres away.

Since the ship car­ry­ing the Syr­ian refugees had been in dif­fi­cul­ties in Malta’s as­signed search and res­cue area, it was Malta that was in com­mand of the whole op­er­a­tion, and it was Malta that was re­spon­si­ble for giv­ing the go-ahead for the mo­bil­i­sa­tion of Ital­ian or com­mer­cial mar­itime as­sets in the area – a go-ahead that had been given too late in the day and not un­til the ship had ac­tu­ally sunk for the 270 vic­tims of the tragedy.

The tragedy came at a time when the Mal­tese gov­ern­ment had been un­der fire for try­ing to adopt a pol­icy of forcibly re­turn­ing ir­reg­u­lar mi­grants to Libya, and only a few days af­ter another tragedy – on 3 Oc­to­ber – had left more than 360 mi­grants dead in the wa­ters near Lampe­dusa.

Fur­ther fu­elling spec­u­la­tion about the way events un­folded on that fate­ful day, the Mal­tese gov­ern­ment and the Armed Forces of Malta have al­ways re­fused to an­swer any ques­tions about the in­ci­dent from the Mal­tese and for­eign me­dia.

Malta had six op­tions

Ac­cord­ing to Syr­ian medic Mo­ham­mad Jammo, who was the per­son who called for help that day, the fish­ing boat the refugees were on was crammed with around 400 pas­sen­gers on board and it was sink­ing, hav­ing sus­tained ma­chine-gun fire from a Libyan ves­sel the night be­fore.

Dr Jammo, who lost two sons in the tragedy, claimed that he first called the Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties via satel­lite phone at 11am. He claimed that the Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties had as­sured him that help was coming, only to be told two hours later to call the Mal­tese au­thor­i­ties.

In re­ply to the news re­port, Ad­mi­ral Fe­li­cio An­grisano, Gen­eral Com­man­der of the Rome Mar­itime Res­cue Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­tre, said that Dr Jammo’s ver­sion was in­cor­rect. “The first call for help was re­ceived at 12.26pm and not at 11pm as stated by the Syr­ian doc­tor.”

Ad­mi­ral An­grisano also said that RCC Malta had been in­formed about the in­ci­dent by 1 pm and five min­utes later the Mal­tese au­thor­i­ties had taken over com­mand of the sit­u­a­tion.

But even so, the tragedy could have still been avoided, as Malta had at least six op­tions.

Op­tion One: mer­chant ships

The Ital­ian Ad­mi­ral said that Malta’s Res­cue Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­tre had been in­formed of the sit­u­a­tion at 1pm. In a right-ofre­ply state­ment to L’Espresso, he said that Malta was ad­vised about the ves­sels that were clos­est to the mi­grant boat.

Among these were two mer­chant ships – the Stadt Bre­men­haven and the Tyrus­land. These ships were 25 and 70 miles away, re­spec­tively. It is known that the ma­rine Safety Net com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem alerted all ships in the area about the mi­grant boat and asked mariners to “keep a look­out and as­sist if pos­si­ble”.

How­ever, the trans­mis­sion is not ad­dressed to any par­tic­u­lar ves­sel and it is not known if the Mal­tese au­thor­i­ties asked the mer­chant ves­sels to help the mi­grants. What is known is that both ships kept steam­ing ahead.

How­ever, the Mal­tese gov­ern­ment has never claimed – as it has done in pre­vi­ous cases – that the ships had ig­nored calls for help.

Op­tion Two: the ITS Libra

Ad­mi­ral An­grisano clearly stated that RCC Malta was also ad­vised that the Ital­ian war­ship ITS Libra was 50 kilo­me­tres away. How­ever, the ship was not in­structed to pro­ceed to the mi­grant boat and con­tin­ued pa­trolling the area at a slow speed for the next four hours.

Malta fi­nally re­quested the help of the Ital­ian navy at 5.10pm, af­ter the mi­grant boat had rolled over and sunk. The ITS Libra ar­rived at the scene at 6pm.

Op­tion Three: Ital­ian coast­guard ves­sels

It is also known that a num­ber of Ital­ian coast­guard ves­sels were op­er­at­ing in the area. The CP401, CP290 and CP312 were in the vicin­ity of Lampe­dusa, around 100 kilo­me­tres away from the mi­grant boat. But they were not dis­patched.

CP301 and CP302 – which were an­chored in Lampe­dusa – only left port at 5.49pm – hal­fan-hour af­ter the boat had cap­sized. And they ar­rived on site at 8.20pm – the trip hav­ing taken just two hours, 30 min­utes.

If the Guardia Costiera ves­sels had left port at 1pm, they would have ar­rived on site at 3.30pm – a full hour-and-a-half be­fore the tragedy.

Op­tion Four: Guardia di Fi­nanza pa­trol boats

There were also two Zara class pa­trol boats from the Guardia di Fi­nanza in Lampe­dusa. With their speed of 40 knots, they could have reached the boat in an hour-and-a-half, but at 5.26pm they were still moored in port. These boats were also not in­structed to as­sist.

Ad­mi­ral An­grisano made it clear that the Ital­ian ves­sels could not act with­out a re­quest from the co­or­di­nat­ing coun­try – Malta. “The RCC in charge de­cides the time and method of res­cue.”

Op­tion Five: fish­ing trawlers

AIS data pro­vided by mi­grant or­gan­i­sa­tion Watch the Med also show that two Ital­ian fish­ing trawlers – the Chiar­aluna and the Fa­mavia – were very close to the mi­grant boat. At 6.15pm, both were sail­ing to­wards the dis­as­ter area but this was a full 20 min­utes be­fore a new, more ur­gent Safety Net mes­sage was broad­cast. This could very well in­di­cate that the fish­ing ves­sels were act­ing at the re­quest of the Mal­tese au­thor­i­ties. What­ever the case, such a re­quest could have been made much ear­lier.

Op­tion Six: go­ing it alone

The sixth and fi­nal op­tion was to keep all Ital­ian mil­i­tary and civil­ian as­sets on standby and to send in a Mal­tese pa­trol boat – the P61. And for some strange rea­son, this was the op­tion cho­sen by the Mal­tese gov­ern­ment.

The P61 was the boat fur­thest away from the mi­grant boat. And, with a top speed of 23 knots, it was also slower than the Ital­ian boats and had a much greater dis­tance to travel.

At the time of the cap­siz­ing, the mi­grant boat was 230 kilo­me­tres from Malta and some 100 kilo­me­tres from Lampe­dusa. The P61 even­tu­ally ar­rived on site at 5.51pm – by which time the mi­grants had been in the wa­ter for more than 40 min­utes and most of the chil­dren had long since died.

Malta also flew in a King Air mar­itime pa­trol air­craft. The take-off time is not known but the plane spot­ted the mi­grant boat at 4pm – by which time Malta had the boat’s ex­act co­or­di­nates.

The plane’s crew wit­nessed the sink­ing of the mi­grant boat and threw life rafts and life jack­ets into the sea. It re­ported the boat’s cap­size to the Malta RCC and it was only at this time, at the 11th hour and when it was al­ready too late for many of the vic­tims, that the de­ci­sion to mo­bilise the Ital­ian as­sets was fi­nally taken.

Ves­sels near ac­ci­dent site fi­nally sent to help

In his ver­sion of events, the Ital­ian Ad­mi­ral said that af­ter the mi­grant boat fi­nally sank, the Mal­tese au­thor­i­ties asked Italy for help and at this time the fleet avail­able for res­cue in­cluded one Mal­tese pa­trol boat, the ITS Libra, boats from the Guardia di Fi­nanza and from the Guardia Costiera, two Ital­ian fish­ing boats that were al­ready in the area and a mer­chant ship that was re-routed by Malta.

This fur­ther con­firms that there were var­i­ous op­tions avail­able, with a num­ber of ves­sels that could have at least helped the mi­grants un­til the Mal­tese pa­trol boat ar­rived.

When asked why the Ital­ians had not re­sponded to the crisis ear­lier, the Ital­ian Ad­mi­ral replied that the Mal­tese were in charge and the Ital­ians could not in­ter­vene be­fore re­ceiv­ing or­ders to do so. It is also un­der­stood that as soon as the Ital­ians re­ceived the call to scram­ble, fol­low­ing the cap­size of the mi­grant boat, they re­sponded im­me­di­ately. The Ital­ians, it seems, were not re­luc­tant to help.

Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Neil Camil­leri

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