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CYPnaval Conference - October 2nd - Cyprus

October 2nd 2019
Icon representing Royal Navy's 1 Day Shipping Managers' Course - July 10th - London, UK
Royal Navy's 1 Day Shipping Managers' Course - July 10th - London, UK

July 10th 2019
Icon representing CSOA First Response Report: Iran Drone Attack
CSOA First Response Report: Iran Drone Attack

June 20th 2019
 
 
 

Libyan Incident

 
September 9th 2016
On August 17th, while some 24nm off the coast of Libya, the MSF-chartered Search and Rescue vessel, Bourbon Argos, was approached by elements of the Libyan Navy or Coast Guard (this has not been specified).

The above facts are not disputed. However, what happened next has now become the subject of investigation, debate and genuine concern for NGOs working in the region and the Merchant Marine who transit the Mediterranean, often skirting the coast of Libya.

According to MSF, the Argos was fired upon by the unidentified boat, with some 13 rounds striking the superstructure of the vessel, forcing the crew on board (there were no migrants on her at the time of the incident) to seek safety in the ship’s citadel. According to MSF, the Libyan’s then boarded the Argos, spending some 50 minutes searching and attempting to gain access to the citadel before they left. Nothing was stolen or damaged during the boarding, MSF have said.

Towards the end of last week, Libyan Navy spokesperson, Brigadier Ayoub Qassem, gave their version of events. Yes, the Libyans noted a vessel inside their waters. They attempted to contact it with no success. They then fired ‘warning shots’ to alert the Argos to their presence. None of these was aimed directly at the Argos, the spokesperson stated last week. They categorically did not board the ship, he said.

One incident. Two versions of events. So far, so normal.

Then, on Tuesday 31st August, the Libyan Navy spokesperson was again asked about the incident in the Libyan press. His story had changed somewhat. The Libyans mistook the boat for fuel smugglers, claimed Qassem. They were on a known smuggling route and the coastal guards intercepted them.

“The guards shot in the air to warn them but because our boat is small and was swaying due to heavy waves there might have been a hit to their boat. I confirm that it was not directly targeted,” Qassem mentioned.

This is quite a difference. From firing into the air to “might have hit their boat”. Regardless, the MSF Bourbon Argos is clearly marked as MSF. It’s AIS trace carries the same SAR information. To suspect MSF of fuel smuggling makes absolutely no sense whatsoever; the Bourbon Argos has been on its rescue mission in those same waters for over a year, so it’s a known presence. What were the motives at play here?

There may be a larger political game going on behind the scenes, with Libya trying to push SAR boats and EUNAVFOR assets further from their EEZ. Qassem himself has said as much in the media, and it may well be that the incident involving the Argos is a tactical move aimed at scaring off NGOs.

If it isn’t, then the incident has potential ramifications for the Merchant Marine. We advise all member CSOs to ensure that if they have vessels transiting the Med and any are approached by small, fast boats, the Masters contact EUNAVFOR Med as soon as possible to alert them. CSO Alliance continues to monitor the situation and will update members accordingly.

CSO Alliance spoke with contacts in Libya to find out the latest on migrants in the region. According to our sources in the country, the current flow of migrants are predominantly economic ones flowing into the country via efficient smuggling operations in the East, Central and Subsaharan regions. Local militias have been “hijacking” the migrant shipments from people smugglers in Sabratha, Libya. A greater local Coast Guard presence off the coast of Libya and a more aggressive repatriation process has had an impact on the numbers crossing the Mediterranean, which are down on the same period compared with 2015.

Ongoing conflicts between fuel and people smugglers have seen the Black Masks in Zuwara push the migrant departure point to Sabratha. In Garabulli, locals destroyed a Coast Guard post and people smuggling point departure point. With virtually all migrant traffic passing through Sabratha, local militia there have taken over operations and have doubled the price charged. The business model is under serious pressure, according to sources.