Armed men jump onboard small boat during rescue near Libya

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Group of masked men approached wooden vessel in dinghies, prompting panic during rescue by charity ship

A group of masked and armed men have threatened a wooden boat in distress in the central Mediterranean, provoking the frightened passengers to throw themselves into the sea.

The incident happened early on Tuesday morning as crew from Ocean Viking, a rescue ship operated by the charity SOS Méditerranée, were evacuating 93 people who had been crammed on to the blue wooden vessel in distress about 19 miles (30km) off the coast of Libya.

The remaining passengers were being transferred on to a safety boat when a group of masked and armed men on two unidentifiable rubber dinghies arrived on the scene. In video footage, one of the men can been seen jumping on to the wooden vessel, provoking panic as its passengers threw themselves overboard. The men then fled, taking the empty boat with them.

“We don’t know who the individuals were or where they came from,” said Francesco Creazzo, a spokesperson for SOS Méditerranée. “But we have no doubt they were Libyan.

“The people onboard, many who couldn’t swim, were so afraid of being taken back to Libya that they chose to throw themselves into the sea. They preferred to die in the sea rather than return to Libya – we often hear this from shipwreck survivors.”

Ocean Viking rescued a further 27 people from a second vessel in distress, saving a total 120 people in one day, including babies and unaccompanied minors.

Creazzo said a similar incident had happened in February. “It is a chaotic situation in an area where there is no European safety mission,” he added.

There have been cases in the past of migrant boats and charity rescue vessels being shot at, sometimes by the Libyan coastguard. Creazzo said that such incidents had become more prevalent since 2017, when the Italian government struck a deal with Libya, approved by the European Council, offering to fund, equip and train its coastguard to intercept and bring boats back to a country where aid agencies have said they suffer abuse and torture.

“The sea was completely abandoned by those that should be guaranteeing rescues, that is the EU states,” said Creazzo. “The Libyan coastguard was already an element of chaos and unpredictability, carrying out serious human rights violations against these people. But since 2017 the situation has got progressively worse.”

The number of rescue ships operating in the central Mediterranean, considered one of the world’s most dangerous stretches of sea, has also vastly dwindled since 2017 as a result of strict measures by various Italian governments.

Under legislation introduced by Giorgia Meloni’s far-right government soon after taking power in October 2022, charity ships can undertake only one rescue operation at a time and must subsequently proceed directly to a port assigned by the Italian coastguard. In many cases, the ports assigned have been in central or northern Italy, as opposed to closer ports in Sicily or Calabria. Several ships have been impounded and their captains fined for flouting the rules. Critics say the measure has led to more deaths at sea.

After Tuesday’s rescue operation, Ocean Viking was assigned the port of Marina di Carrara in Tuscany.

Italy is one of the main landing points for people trying to reach Europe. The UN has registered more than 20,000 deaths and disappearances along the route since 2014. As of 17 June, an estimated 749 people have died while trying to make the journey so far this year.