Libya’s coastguard intercepted nearly 500 migrants on a wooden boat and returned them to Tripoli after warning off a ship preparing to pick them up for passage to Europe.
Footage filmed by Sea-Watch, a non-governmental organisation, showed a Libyan coastguard vessel coming within metres of its own ship as it sped to stop the migrants.
Coastguard spokesman Ayoub Qassem said the incident occurred about 30 km north of the Libyan coast.
It highlights the confusion in the crowded waters as desperate migrants try to reach a better life and authorities scramble to deal with the chaos.
“An international rescue organisation called Sea-Watch tried to hinder the work of our coastguard … in a bid to take the migrants, claiming Libya is not safe for migrants,” he said.
Qassem said the coastguard also exchanged fire with smugglers, but gave no details.
Ruben Neugebauer, spokesman for Sea-Watch, said the NGO received instruction from Italy’s coastguard control centre in Rome the Libyan coastguard would be taking over “on-scene command” and the Sea-Watch ship stopped to await further instruction.
“Without warning, they crossed our bow on the way to the migrant boat,” Neugebauer said. “They made a dangerous manoeuvre. They nearly hit our boat, they endangered our crew.”
Libya is the main departure point for migrants hoping to reach Europe by sea. The country has been in turmoil for years and migrants living there or passing through say they are subject to a range of abuses. A record 181,000 made the trip in 2016 and arrivals in Italy so far this year are up 30%. Most are from sub-Saharan Africa.
Most migrants attempt the perilous journey on flimsy inflatable boats provided by smugglers and barely equipped to make it to international waters. Larger wooden boats carrying several hundred migrants are rarer.
Some migrants are turned back by the Libyan coastguard, which generally delivers them to detention centres notorious for poor conditions and ill-treatment. The coastguard is receiving training from the European Union as it seeks to limit migrant departures and deaths.
Other migrants are taken to Italy after being picked up by NGO ships running rescue missions, European or Italian naval and coastguard patrols and other international vessels.
Qassem said the wooden boat intercepted on Wednesday was carrying nearly 300 Moroccans, 145 Bangladeshis, 23 Tunisians and other migrants from elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East.
Those on board said they left Sabratha on Tuesday. There were about 20 women, some five whom taken for medical treatment as they arrived in Tripoli. One appeared to be seriously ill.
A 24-year-old Moroccan man said he had come to Libya five weeks earlier to try to reach Europe. A 28-year-old man, also Moroccan, said he had been working in Libya for four years, but decided to leave because the situation was deteriorating.
A Syrian woman on board said she travelled through six countries to reach Libya, paying $1,000 in each and leaving two sons aged 12 and 13 behind in Jordan.
“I wanted to leave for Europe,” she said. “It was an attempt to get a better life and reunite my whole family in Europe, but unfortunately we couldn’t make it.”