The lives of shipwrecked persons and a humanitarian crew from SOS MEDITERRANEE and IFRC were put in danger on Friday afternoon, July 7th, during a rescue operation at sea. The Libyan coastguard fired shots in close proximity to a rescue crew. This is the third incident this year, and part of a context of increasing insecurity in the Mediterranean Sea.
The crew onboard humanitarian rescue ship Ocean Viking, operated by SOS MEDITERRANEE and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), responded to a mayday relay call about a small boat in distress in international waters off the Libyan coast. It was the second operation of the day after a first rescue of 46 persons that also took place in international waters in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region.
Shortly after the evacuation of the eleven shipwrecked persons by the Ocean Viking’s smaller inflatable rescue boats, a Libyan Coastguard patrol vessel approached the scene at high speed and started to fire multiple shots at close range. The gunshots were fired less than 100 meters from the humanitarian rescue crew and the shipwrecked persons – including a woman and five unaccompanied children – as they were trying to get back to the Ocean Viking.
While all shipwrecked persons and crew members made it to safety onboard the Ocean Viking, all are in shock and some sustained injuries because of the dangerous manoeuvres of the Coastguard. Giannis, leader of the inflatable rescue boat closest to the Libyan patrol vessel, describes the imminent danger of the incident: “The impact of the wake created by the Libyan patrol vessel on our boats was so strong that I injured my back. As they continued shooting and chasing us, the safety of the rescued people and crew were in the hands of a gunman.”
It is the third time since the beginning of this year that the crew of the Ocean Viking faced a dangerous incident during a rescue operation. IFRC and SOS Mediterranee call upon all governments to ensure humanitarians can provide lifesaving support at sea without risking their lives.
As humanitarian organizations, our focus is on saving lives, filling the gap in search and rescue left in the Mediterranean and these situations put people at increasing risk. At the same time, numbers of dead and missing at Europe’s southern border continue to mount.
“We are extremely worried about the security situation on the Mediterranean Sea. We have seen devasting numbers of people that perished at sea this year, with the horrific shipwreck off the coast of Greece as a recent example. At the same time, humanitarian organizations trying to help people in distress at sea fear for their safety. This dangerous situation can lead to the loss of more lives, even though all these deaths of people at sea are preventable,” says Maria Alcazar Castilla, deputy regional director for Europe and Central Asia at IFRC.
2023 has been a particularly deadly year so far: 1,728 people have died trying to cross the central Mediterranean in search of safety and peace in Europe since January. It is the highest death toll since 2017 and almost certainly an undercount.1
To prevent more deaths, it is crucial that humanitarians can operate safely to assist people in distress at sea.
On 07.07.23, #OceanViking rescued 11 people following a mayday relay. During the operation, @SOSMedIntl crew & 11 survivors faced a security incident with a Libyan patrol vessel shooting in close range of our fast rescue boats. Here the reconstruction of this unacceptable event👇 pic.twitter.com/EWzcz5Rvbn
— SOS MEDITERRANEE (@SOSMedIntl) July 9, 2023
Note to editors:
- On January 25, the Libyan Coastguard interfered with an ongoing rescue operation by
- preventing the SOS MEDITERRANEE Search and Rescue team on a rigid-hull inflatable boat to return to the mothership. All survivors and crew eventually reached safety onboard the Ocean Viking where IFRC provided them with post-rescue support.
- On March 25, a Libyan Coastguard patrol vessel came dangerously close to the Ocean Viking (less than 50 meters). Not answering to VHF calls, the Libyan Coastguard started firing shots in the air in close proximity of the Ocean Viking as the rescue ship was trying to leave the scene. Only after firing gunshots, the Libyan Coastguard in Arabic language requested the Ocean Viking to leave the area.
- The operational partnership between IFRC and SOS Mediterranee, onboard the Ocean Viking, fills an important gap in the humanitarian response to assist and rescue persons in distress at sea. We do this by providing essential humanitarian services such as food, items for basic needs, and access to protection and health services to all survivors, regardless of their migration status.
Cover photo: Claire Juchat / SOS MEDITERRANEE