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National Sunday


Lampedusa tragedy | Italian navy failed to effect instant, faster rescue

On 11 October, Rome received a 12:39pm rescue call but instead passed the buck to the Maltese armed forces even though an Italian patrol boat was only two hours away from the tragedy waiting to unfold.

A tragedy that could have been avoided

Matthew Vella

The Italian navy ignored rescue calls from the sinking fishing boat that claimed the lives of over 260 Syrian and other nationals 11 October at sea, to „pass the buck“ to Malta – according to Italy’s investigative journalism magazine l’Espresso.

Journalist Fabrizio Gatti, whose career as an investigative journalist has seen him witness the plight of asylum seekers by immersing himself as „an undercover immigrant“, published documentary evidence that Italy’s Libra patrol boat was a short distance away from the boat that was carrying over 460 migrants.

„The sinking fishing-boat was certainly visible on their radar screen, being such a short distance away,“ Gatti wrote of the 12:26pm rescue call received by the Italians on Friday, 11 October.

„But no one gives any orders; no one takes any decisions that might still save 268 lives. The Libra is authorized to reach the spot only at 17:14 hours. By that time, the children’s ship had already capsized seven minutes earlier, the sea now an expanse of living and dead people.“

According to the evidence published by L’Espresso, the cause of the delay in succouring the migrants was the „passing the buck of responsibility between Italy and Malta during search-and-rescue operations“. Apart from data from some 13,000 ship movements in transit from 11am to midnight during that Friday of 11 October, there is an eyewitness report by Admiral Felicio Angrisano, commander of Italy’s coastguard, and other reports by naval officers.

L’Espresso says that at 1pm on 11 October, instead of steaming ahead to the point of disaster – 113km south of Lampedusa and 218km from Malta – the Italian operations centre ignored a direct intervention and passed on the rescue call to the Maltese armed forces.

L’Espresso comments sardonically that the reason why over 260 perished in the sea was down to a decision, as described by Admiral Angrisano in a written report forwarded to l’Espresso, to be in compliance with the 1979 Hamburg rules that lay down „the criteria of international conduct… appointing each State with the responsibility of coordinating research and rescue operations in defined and declared areas.“

The rescue call from the boat was made by Mohammed Jammo, a 40-year-old physician who worked in an Aleppo hospital, who lost his six-year-old and nine-month-old children in the shipwreck. Using the traffickers‘ Thuraya satellite mobile phone, he called the Rome Coordination Centre because it was visibly clear on the screens of three different GPS instruments on board that Lampedusa was closer.

„100km means two hours of navigation for coastguard boats and slightly more than an hour and a half for the fast patrol boats belonging to the Guardia di Finanza stationed in Lampedusa, following the shipwreck of Eritrean refugees that took place eight days earlier.

“ ‚I called the same Italian telephone number three times‘, Jammo says. ‚At about 11am, then at 12:30pm, and slightly before 1pm.‘ His words were confirmed by two surviving physicians: Ayman Mustafa (38), surgeon, and Mazen Dahhan (36), neurosurgeon.“ Both men lost their families in the tragedy.

The only thing Admiral Angrisano denied is the 11am call. The rest is confirmed. “ ‚At 12:26pm, a very disturbed telephone call reached the Operations Centre from a satellite telephone, to the point of being unintelligible at times. After five minutes of attempts to communicate, the telephone line was cut off. As per experience, I got in touch with the Thuraya network provider in the United Arab Emirates, as I have already done hundreds of times for similar cases‘.“

At 12:39pm, Jammo called again, allowing Angrisano to now know the number and nationality of the people on board, place of departure, the presence of two children in need of treatment, and finally the position of the vessel whose engine had broken down and was shipping water.

But although at 1pm there was an opportunity to reach the boats by 3pm, with Italian military shops like the Libra already out at sea to protect Italian fishing boats from Libyan attacks, the request to intervene was only passed to the Maltese at 1pm.

Jammo even told l’Espresso that the admiral barely gave him time to write down the number of the Maltese rescue centre.

„This invitation to directly get in touch with Malta is in compliance with a clear, tested and productive method,“ Admiral Angrisano told l’Espresso. „Through direct contact between those who ask for help and those who are obliged to provide assistance, this produces more effective and productive rescue operations.“

Angrisano even insisted that the vessel was „in waters belonging to Malta’s jurisdiction“.

But according to the Italian Navy, at 1:34pm the Libra was only 27 miles away from the rescue point, or 50km. At the ship’s top speed of 20 knots (37km/h) the Libra could have made it in 90 minutes, by 3pm.

But it only got there at 6pm, because it was only after the children’s boat sank that the Maltese coordinators demanded assistance from the Rome operations centre. It’s only at 5:14pm that the Libra finally intervenes.

„In other words, it’s been sailing for hours while waiting for someone to decide what must be done. Four and a half hours to travel 50kmmeans an average speed of 11 kilometres per hour, less than 6 knots: certainly not at an emergency pace,“ Gatti writes.

At 4:22pm, the Maltese armed forces tell Rome that one of their aircrafts had identified the fishing-boat adrift. At 5:07pm, they inform Rome that the boat had capsized and ask Italy for help. The first rescue boat, namely the Maltese P61 patrol boat, reached the site only at 5:51pm, and then only joined by the Libra at 6pm.

Letter to l’Espresso from Admiral Angrisano by maltatoday

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