Libya rescues over 200 Europe-bound migrants off coast

The navy released a statement online on Friday saying its coast guard came to the aid of two rubber boats. (FILE/AP)
Updated 10 May 2019

Libya rescues over 200 Europe-bound migrants off coast

  • Libya became a major conduit for African migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe after the uprising that toppled and killed Muammar Qaddafi in 2011

CAIRO, ROME, RABAT: Libya’s navy says it has rescued 213 Europe-bound African and Arab migrants off the Mediterranean coast.

The navy released a statement online on Friday saying its coast guard came to the aid of two rubber boats that had sailed separately on May 8. One of the two boats was carrying 88 men, 12 women and seven children. The second boat carried the remaining 106.

The statement says the migrants — nationals of several Arab and African countries — were handed over to Libya’s police after having received humanitarian and medical aid.

Libya became a major conduit for African migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe after the uprising that toppled and killed Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Libyan authorities have stepped up efforts to stem the flow of migrants, with European assistance.

A day earlier, 66 migrants were rescued in international waters off Libya on Thursday during two separate operations carried out by the Italian navy and a charity ship, raising the likelihood of a new stand-off over which port will take them in.

The first group of 36 migrants was picked up by the navy’s Cigala Fulgosi patrol ship around 75 nautical miles off the Libyan coast as part of Italy’s “Mare Sicuro” (“Safe Seas”) operation.

Those on board, including two women and eight minors, were in “mortal danger” as their makeshift craft had taken on water, adding that they had been rescued “in line with Italian and international law.”

Crackdown

Moroccan authorities have succeeded in slowing the rate of illegal migration into Spain in recent months after a crackdown on smuggling networks, Morocco’s migration and border control chief said on Friday, unveiling new figures to Reuters.

So far 7,202 people have successfully reached Spain from Morocco this year, around 2,000 more than in the same period last year. But more than half of this year’s crossings took place in January, with numbers declining sharply over the following three months.

Border control chief Khalid Zerouali told Reuters this showed that government efforts were having an effect.

He said the authorities had prevented 25,000 illegal crossings so far this year, up 30 percent compared to the same period last year. So far this year there have been no attempts to storm border fences of the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

“The measures taken by Morocco led to stemming the migration flow to Spain,” Zerouali said.

The route between Morocco and Spain has become one of the main illegal entry routes into Europe for migrants as pressure has been applied to close other routes from Turkey to Greece and Libya to Italy.

Last year some 57,000 people arrived illegally in Spain. Morocco said it stopped 89,000 migrants last year.

The vast majority of illegal Mediterranean crossings are attempted during the summer months which have yet to begin, so the much smaller figures for the first few months of the year are difficult to compare.

Zerouali denied reports that an agreement has been signed with Spain for Morocco to readmit migrants rescued at sea.

Morocco dismantled 50 migrant trafficking networks operating at the local and international levels so far this year, up 63 percent compared with a year earlier, he said. Authorities had also helped combat traffickers by imposing controls on the import and sale of navigation equipment, he added.

The EU has promised €140 million ($157 million) in border management aid to help Morocco curb migration flows. Some €30 million was disbursed earlier this year.

Zerouali said half of that aid would come in the form of budget support and half in donated equipment.

In the evening, Italian charity rescue ship Mare Jonio said it saved 30 people, including five minors and a pregnant woman, about 40 nautical miles off the Libyan coast.

“We asked the Italian MRCC (Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center) for a safe port,” the left-wing collective Mediterranea, which charters the Mare Jonio, tweeted.

Hard-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, currently campaigning for EU elections, warned he would not allow the migrants to be disembarked in Italy.

“A military ship which will have to assume its responsibility through its selected ministry is one thing, but a private vessel or one belonging to a social center, like the Mare Jonio, is another,” a spokesman for Salvini said.

“For them, the ports will remain closed.”

Italy’s populist government has taken an increasingly hard line on migration, and Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant League party, last month signed a new directive banning charity vessels from rescuing migrants off Libya.

Charity ships have drawn fire from Rome by attempting on occasion to stop migrants being taken back to crisis-hit Libya, which human rights organizations say is not safe for repatriations.

After Italian concerns that recent violence in Libya will spark an exodus of people determined to seek safety in Europe, Salvini has warned Italian ports are closed to those attempting perilous Mediterranean crossings.

Last August, dozens of migrants aboard the Italian coast guard vessel Diciotti were stranded in a Sicilian port before Salvini allowed them to disembark saying several bishops had agreed to take them in.

An accord was reached with the Catholic Church to have Ireland and Albania take some of the migrants.

Salvini faced a judicial investigation into his role in the initial stand-off, but the Italian senate blocked a criminal case against him.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration meanwhile urged “international solidarity” to be shown to the 36 migrants, adding that returning the group to Libya in its current volatile state would violate international law.


Beirut wakes up to a nightmare after port explosion kills 135

Updated 06 August 2020

Beirut wakes up to a nightmare after port explosion kills 135

  • Cost of damage estimated at $15 billion
  • Port officials under house arrest

BEIRUT: Most people experience nightmares only when they sleep. On Wednesday, Beirut woke up to one.

The once bustling port area of the Lebanese capital, the site of Tuesday’s massive explosions, lay in ruins. Amid the flattened remains of warehouses, one of which had been used for years to store 2,750 tonnes of confiscated, highly explosive ammonium nitrate, all that remained standing was the twisted, mangled ruin of a grain silo, its precious contents now unusable.

Farther into the city, where the shock wave from the main blast caused devastation over a radius of more than five kilometers, residents mourned the dead, continued to search for missing loved ones and surveyed the ruins of their homes and businesses.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud estimated the cost of the damage at up to $15 billion, an impossible amount for an already bankrupt economy. Maroun Helou, the president of the Lebanese Contractors Syndicate, estimated that about 50,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged.

The official death toll rose on Wednesday to 135. More than 5,000 people were injured and dozens are still missing, many of them believed to be port workers buried under the rubble at the heart of the explosion. The Lebanese flag flew at half-staff across the country as a mark of respect for the victims.

Lebanese Red Cross chief George Kettana described the blast and its aftermath as “an unprecedented disaster.” He added: “Seventy-five of our ambulances have transported 100 dead and more than 4,000 injured so far and there are (still people) missing.”

Surgeons continued to operate on the injured on Wednesday, after hospitals were overwhelmed on Tuesday. Some of the wounded told how they were taken to hospital on motorcycles driven by passers-by because ambulances were unable to reach them.

Security forces cordoned off central Beirut to prevent theft and looting. The few pedestrians that could be seen found it difficult to walk on streets covered in shattered glass.

One shop owner said: “I experienced all the wars that took place in Beirut, and the attacks against it, but I have never witnessed such devastation in my life. How will we survive? Everything has been destroyed. We are tired. We want salvation.”

Eleven members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, who were on boats anchored at the port, were injured by the blast. They were taken to Sidon for treatment, as emergency departments in Beirut struggled to cope with the flood of wounded. The tourist ship Orient Queen sank in the port. Two crew members were killed and seven injured.

Pierre Ashkar, head of the Syndicate of Hotel Owners in Lebanon, said: “Ninety percent of Beirut’s hotels have been damaged and there are large numbers of wounded people in hotels, including employees and customers.”

Although silos used for storing wheat — which were rebuilt 15 years ago after suffering damage during the Civil War — were destroyed in the blast, analysts said this is not expected to cause a bread shortage. One expert said: “Wheat will not be stored during reconstruction of the silos. Instead, it will be unloaded from ships directly to trucks that will transport it to the mills.”

The Lebanese cabinet, which met for an unscheduled meeting on Wednesday, has declared a state of emergency lasting two weeks, which gives the military the authority to maintain national security. It also ordered that all those responsible for the management, storage, guarding and scrutiny of the chemicals in the warehouse at the port be placed under house arrest, and vowed that those responsible for the explosion would be identified.

While visiting the port to survey the damage, President Michel Aoun said: “The city of Beirut has turned into a disaster city. But the enormity of the shock will not prevent us from carrying out investigations and revealing the circumstances of what happened as soon as possible, holding the officials and inattentive people accountable and imposing the most severe penalties against them.”

A senior judge instructed the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces to carry out swift investigations into the circumstances of the explosion, including identification of those tasked with ensuring the safe storage of the chemicals, and those in charge of maintenance work reportedly being carried out at the warehouse shortly before the blast.

The details of the confiscation of the ammonium nitrate about six years ago are still somewhat unclear. The port’s general manager, Hassan Koraytem, said there had been correspondence about the chemicals at the time of the seizure and guards were assigned to them, but that port authorities had no authority to move or dispose of them. He added that the judiciary had issued instructions for a gap in a gate to be closed to protect the chemicals from damage or theft and this was implemented by port authorities.

There have been suggestions that welding work at or near the warehouse caused a fire that triggered the explosion.

Meanwhile, messages of support and promises of aid poured in from world leaders. The cabinet was informed that French President Emmanuel Macron will visit Lebanon on Thursday to “stress solidarity with the Lebanese in the ordeal that befell them.”

In a call to Prime Minister Hassan Diab, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged “the support of the United States for Lebanon, and its willingness to provide urgent assistance,” the PM’s office said.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri also visited the scene of the explosion. He was greeted at the nearby memorial to his father, Rafic Hariri, by protesters tried to throw stones at him.
Meanwhile dozens of aircraft loaded with medical aid, including field hospitals, were sent to Lebanon by Arab and other foreign countries.

However, Suleiman Haroun, the president of the Syndicate of Private Hospitals, said: “The stock of medical supplies for hospitals is exhausted. We do not need field hospitals, but rather tools and supplies.”