Prosecutors in Sicily have launched an investigation against the Libyan coastguard after footage emerged appearing to show officials firing on a boat of migrant families in the Mediterranean Sea.
On 30 June, rescue workers from the German organisation Sea Watch recorded the Libyan coastguard patrol vessel coming dangerously close to the small wooden boat and apparently firing shots in an attempt to force the 64 people onboard back to Libya.
On Friday, after receiving a complaint from Sea Watch, which contained footage and photos of the incident, prosecutors in Agrigento decided to investigate the Libyan officials for “attempted shipwreck’’, and will look at whether the incident put the lives of the migrants in danger.
It is the first time a European country has launched an investigation against the Libyan coastguard, who have faced numerous accusations of alleged collusion with people smugglers and of mistreating asylum seekers.
The investigation, which was first reported by the Italian newspaper Avvenire, was confirmed by Agrigento’s chief prosector, Luigi Patronaggio, who said that to continue the investigation he needed “authorisation from the Italian ministry of justice, given that the object of the proceeding is a foreign authority”.
The decision is likely to cause a stir as the vessel involved in the video – named PB 648, Ras Jadir – is one of four patrol boats Italy originally supplied to Libya.
In February 2017, Europe had ceded responsibility for overseeing Mediterranean rescue operations to Libya as part of a deal between Italy and Libya aimed at reducing migrant arrivals on European shores.
Under the terms of the deal, Italy agreed to train, equip and finance the Libyan coastguard, by supplying Tripoli with four patrol boats. The Libyan coastguard, which has dismissed any allegations of violence in the past, said in a statement they would look into the matter.
In April, a Guardian investigation revealed the apparent indifference of the Libyan authorities to international law, and exposed their uncooperative behaviour and alleged failure to answer distress phone calls.
More than 800 people have died so far in 2021 while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, according to the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project.