Malta’s armed forces are co-operating with Libya’s coastguard to turn back migrant boats heading to Malta’s search and rescue zone, a newspaper reported, citing a secret government deal.
Government declined to comment on the report in the Sunday Times of Malta, but told Reuters the Mediterranean state had worked with the Libyan coastguard for years and always operated within the law.
Under the terms of the deal, when a migrant boat is spotted sailing toward Malta, the island’s armed forces seek the intervention of the Libyan coastguard to intercept them before they enter Malta’s territorial waters, the paper said.
Non-governmental organisations denounced previous deals by which Italy directed the Libyan coastguard to pick up migrant boats in Libyan territorial waters, saying refugees face torture and abuse in the lawless north African country.
The Malta deal appears to go further encouraging the Libyan coastguard to intervene beyond its own coastal waters, which extend 22 km from its shore and into the broad search-and-rescue zone operated by Malta.
“Search and rescue areas are not areas where the coastal state exercises sovereignty or has jurisdiction, but areas forming part of high seas where foreign military assets have every right to investigate illegal activity departing from their coast,” the Maltese government said.
Malta took in several hundred migrants recently, mostly from charity rescue ships operating in the central Mediterranean. There have been few reports of lone migrant boats reaching the island.
In a sign of growing co-operation between Valletta and the Tripoli-based Libyan government, Malta seized a shipment of unofficial Libyan currency believed to have been destined for rebel military strongman Khalifa Haftar in September.
Two containers of recently introduced currency, printed in Russia, were discovered when the ship was stopped in Malta, local media reported.
The Customs Department did not announce the find at the time and made no subsequent comment on the operation.