Yesterday the Aquarius, chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE and operated in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), faced one of its most tragic days at sea since the beginning of its mission in the Central Mediterranean almost two years ago. After having been at dawn a direct witness to the interception of a rubber dinghy in international waters by the Libyan Coast Guard, the Aquarius was mobilized for the rescue of sinking rubber boat in international waters off the Libyan coast. In the end of the day, 98 people were pulled into safety. Two women died and many more are missing. After this doubly tragic day, the Aquarius continues to patrol international waters in search of other boats in distress.
“We faced a very critical rescue. When our speed boats approached the rubber dinghy, it was already deflating on one side and people were in the water without lifejackets. All floating devices were deployed immediately, but many people had already lost consciousness when they were pulled out of the water and had to be resuscitated. Despite all our efforts, unfortunately it was too late for two women,” said Klaus Merkle, SOS MEDITERRANEE’s search and rescue coordinator aboard the Aquarius.
“There were so many people in the water at the same time that it was difficult to maintain our usual rescue procedures. You had to be everywhere at once. I had to get two babies out of the water, literally floating under the surface and give them a heart massage, it’s a miracle they survived.”, said Edouard Courcelle, a volunteer rescuer on board the Aquarius.
“The scene was devastating, with many urgent medical cases. They kept coming, one after another, unconscious and not breathing,” said MSF nurse Aoife Ni Mhurchu.
Seven unconscious persons (one woman, three babies and three young children) were resuscitated successfully. Two other women who did not survive despite the efforts by the medical team, leaving two children orphans. A baby of a few months, who is currently aboard the Aquarius, and a 4-year-old child, who was evacuated together with nine other persons to Sfax, Tunisia by an Italian Navy helicopter. They need immediate care due to pleural effusion.
The other survivors arrived on board in shock, are disoriented due to inhaling gasoline. Some suffer of hypothermia, others of burns due to the toxic mixture of gasoline and salt water.
According to survivors’ testimonies, people had already fallen into the water already before the Aquarius arrived at scene. Many people are missing, including several children and a 1 ½ year-old baby. The stories of the survivors are recalling the dramatic day: “People started to panic. I was on the boat but at some point someone started pulling me backwards and made me fall into the water,” said a survivor from Cameroon. “I had fallen into the water and someone clung to me as I tried to catch on the boat, I was going to sink so I bit him,” said the survivor’s wife.
Two tragic events within one day
Before being mobilized by the MRCC Rome for the rescue of the sinking rubber dinghy, the Aquarius was again a helpless witness of an interception by the Libyan Coast Guard in international waters, more than 15 nautical miles off the Libyan coast.
On Friday night, the Aquarius received instructions from MRCC Rome to search for a boat in distress in international waters west of Tripoli. The boat was spotted at 15 nautical miles off the Libyan coast four hours later and was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, who ordered the Aquarius to stay away, strongly refusing any offer to assist in the rescue.
“We had just spotted the boat with around a hundred people on board. The search light of the Aquarius pointed towards the dinghy. We could see people’s frightened faces and we could hear them screaming and calling for help. Our teams were ready to intervene at any moment to save these men, women and children in distress, but the Libyan Coast Guard brutally ordered us to leave the area and categorically refused any offer of assistance,” said Merkle.
Informed by the MRCC Rome that the Libyan Coast Guard assumed “on scene command” of this operation, the Aquarius was asked to comply with their instructions. After being ordered to leave the scene, the Aquarius could follow a radio conversation, saying that the Libyan Coast Guard had intercepted two rubber boats. However, they did not specify where the passengers of these boats were brought to. “According to International maritime law, people rescued in international waters have to be be brought to a ‘place of safety’. This safe place cannot be Libya, a place lacking state structures and where human rights violations occur on a daily basis.“, commented Sophie Beau, Vice-President of SOS MEDITERRANEE International.
“We again urge the European states to do everything they can to prevent such tragedies and to put an end to these preventable deaths. Europe has to listen these people crying for help, listen to their screams when intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard or fighting for their lives aboard sinking rubber dinghies. These children, women and men are drowning in front of our eyes due to Europe’s indifference.”, said Beau.
For immediate release.
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SOS MEDITERRANEE is a European organization for the rescue of people in distress at sea. It was founded in 2015 and launched its rescue operations in February 2016. Since then, the organization has, together with its medical partner Doctors Without Borders (MSF), assisted more than 26.000 people. In 2017, SOS MEDITERRANEE has received the UNESCO Peace Prize. The non-profit organization based in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland is exclusively funded by donations.