Army rescuers were given orders to “keep at a distance” from a boat carrying 200 migrants in gale force winds last November, hours before 9 of them drowned and at least 20 went missing in a shipwreck off the coast of Sicily, MaltaToday can reveal.
Among entries on the official AFM log book registering the orders given from headquarters via radio to rescuers sent to track the boat on that day, the captain of an AFM airplane and the master of a patrol boat were ordered to “keep at a distance” from the boat people as they were passing through Maltese waters heading north.
Kept at the AFM Operations Room at Luqa Headquarters, the log book lists the orders and actions taken on 17 November 2005 in response to the boat crammed with migrants travelling in force 6 winds.
Seen by MaltaToday and confirmed by a senior spokesman of the Prime Minister, the evidence excludes any kind of communication with the migrants, contradicting statements made by Parliamentary Secretary Tony Abela in parliament in the wake of the tragedy alleging that the AFM had approached the migrants to offer assistance and insisting that this was refused.
Sources told MaltaToday that the recording equipment donated by the American government and meant to keep track of all radio messages sent to and from AFM Headquarters was never used since it was installed, leaving the log book as the only evidence of the dialogue between rescuers and their
The first entries on the AFM log book show the AFM were alerted at 1.11pm that a boat packed with immigrants was sighted five miles off It-Tieqa, Gozo. Eleven minutes later, fast rescue boat Melita 1 (M1) was dispatched and at 1.45pm airplane Islander A316 was also sent on site.
At 2.25pm, the airplane pilot reports to base that he has spotted the boat and is above it.
“I’m above them they’re on a big boat they seem to be a big quantity of people… 4.3 miles from Gozo… heading north,” the pilot said.
Written next to it under the heading “action”, the log book documents the response from headquarters to the message radioed from the plane: “Capt. A Mallia informed and told us to monitor them and keep a distance away from them.”
Seven minutes later, the plane reports rough sea conditions, an observation confirmed to have degenerated later with worsening visibility reported by the patrol boat sent out.
A senior spokesman for the Prime Minister confirmed the “keep at a distance” order to MaltaToday, adding that it was “standard practice”.
“It is standard practice in cases where an irregular migrants’ boat is sighted to keep the craft under surveillance in order to verify the intentions of the persons on board,” the spokesman said. “Operational units are kept at a safe distance in order to avoid interfering with the migrants’ boat in any manner which could compromise its safety. Such distance however is not allowed to become so excessive as to prevent AFM personnel from recognising gestures from persons on board the migrants’ boat which may indicate that they require assistance.”
At 3.50pm, a second patrol boat, P32, is sent to accompany the Melita 1 boat heading towards the migrants, which 10 minutes later informs HQ that it had spotted the boat 10 miles north off Gozo.
At 5.30pm, 30 minutes after the plane has landed back at the Luqa airport, Melita 1 reports: “I am 150 metres away from them and visibility is very bad.”
Next to it, a message from the P32 master is recorded as saying that he was 45 minutes away and with the rough sea conditions could not make it faster. Ten minutes later, the Luqa airfield radios a thunderstorm warning.
Melita 1 reports again at 5.45pm that it has lost sight of the boat.
“I’ve lost them I’m not seeing them anymore,” the master reported.
The other boat master says he is four miles away from the location and that he could see the boatpeople occasionally on the radar.
At 5.53pm, the master of the M1 patrol boat reports the weather conditions are getting worse and that, strangely, he was running out of fuel.
“S/Sgt Cutajar warned that with the present sea conditions he cannot continue… M1 informed it is returning to base because running out of fuel and entering for refuelling.”
AFM sources say it was strange the M1 had already run out of fuel, four and a half hours since it left base, given that all AFM vessels were always fully fuelled and meant to last for much longer hours on search and rescue missions.
Another patrol boat, the P52, is called into action at the same time, with the order to “take over” where the M1 had left.
At 6.12pm, the P32 boat informs base about the coordinates of the migrants’ boat, adding that it would reach “their FIR” in approximately two hours – presumably meaning the Italians’ Flight Information Region where Italy would then be responsible for their rescue.
Three minutes later, the same P32 is told to return to base.
“You can start returning but keep following it on the radar,” the entry says.
The next entry, recorded at 6.16pm, states that the Commander of the AFM is informed from HQ about the situation, followed by an interchange of information between the P32 boat out at sea and the P52 which despite the order given 23 minutes earlier had not yet left base.
“Asked with what speed they were moving? … They’re making 8 knots… (In 3 hours they reach Italy),” the entry reads – a calculation that proves to be spot on when three hours later the Italians would intercept the boat in their rescue region but fail to rescue them on time due to the delayed information relayed from Malta.
It took the P52 master yet another 10 minutes to inform base that he was not leaving base at 6.32pm.
“P52. Capt Grixti informed us that with the sea conditions he is not going out he is remaining stand by at base,” the entry reads.
The entry flanking it under “action” confirms that all the patrol boats scrambled into action had abandoned the mission.
“Two boats returning back… M1 and P32. While the P52 will not go out.”
At 7.07pm, M1 reports it has returned to base, while the P32 that is still on its way back reports that it has lost contact of the boat on its radar. Fifty minutes later, the master reports he has arrived “back to base”.
Only at 9.34pm, the log book registers a call from the Italian Coast Guard in Rome, inquiring about a boat full of migrants within its rescue region.
The next day, Malta’s and Italy’s press was inflamed with reports about the shipwreck of the migrants, with nine of them found dead along the coast of Pozzallo, Sicily, between 20 and 30 of them still missing and 177 found on land, including five children and three women.
It was a Friday, the day in which Parliamentary Secretary Tony Abela, who is in charge of the AFM, made his intervention about the budget in Parliament, dedicating a good chunk of his speech to the AFM’s mission the previous night.
He had also repeated his claim to MaltaToday that week, stating that “the migrants refused help” and adding that Italian rescuers had failed to respond to warnings from the Maltese authorities as the boat was approaching Sicily.
His statements were widely reported by the press here and in Italy.
Abela and the AFM came under fire from the Italian media for letting the boat carry on with its voyage of death in the rough seas, but the parliamentary secretary had defended the decision.
“The decision of the Maltese authorities to let the boat packed with migrants head on, despite the tempest, is destined to create controversy,” La Sicilia reported together with La Repubblica, repeating Abela’s claims in parliament that the AFM had only intercepted the boat “in international waters” and that “they refused assistance”.
One of the survivors, a Tunisian national called Hamed Godbari, 44, was reported in the Italian press as saying that they had not seen the Maltese patrol boats, adding that they wanted to proceed to Italy “at all costs”. His testimony, together with that of others’, formed part of an inquiry launched by the Modica inquiring magistrate.
On 20 November, Abela told The Sunday Times: “While the Italian media might be justified in its criticism over an incident last year, on this occasion we did no wrong.”
Pressed with questions in the light of the log book entries seen by MaltaToday, a senior spokesman for the Prime Minister said this week that the orders and action taken on 17 November, co-ordinated by the AFM Operation Centre, were standard practice.
“Direct intervention, with its inherent risks, considering the prevailing weather conditions and the amount of persons on board is undertaken in two cases, that is, (a) when the persons aboard the boat indicate that they require assistance, (b) when a clear attempt is made to illegally enter Maltese territory,” the spokesman said. “Such practice is standard also in joint operations against illegal migration such as those which were organised by EU sea borders centres in which Italian forces also participated. Of course, if the boat is found adrift or its occupants ask for help, assistance is rendered as required within available capabilities and as prescribed by international law.”
The spokesman added that Parliamentary Secretary Tony Abela was kept informed throughout the operation.
“Although it is normal practice that Parliamentary Secretary responsible for Defence Matters is kept informed about such situations, as happened in this case, the direction and co-ordination of such sensitive operations are the sole responsibility of the AFM Operations Centre,” the spokesman said.
Asked how the AFM communicated with the boatpeople so that Abela could then claim that they had refused assistance, the spokesman said: “AFM craft and aircraft were close enough to the migrants’ boat that every opportunity existed for the occupants of the boat to signal for help. However this did not happen and the boat continued steadily in a northerly direction. In the light of poor visibility, use was also made of image enhancing devices and AFM units ensured that they maintained visual contact.”
The spokesman insisted that “at no point while the vessel was under the AFM surveillance was there any indication that the boat was in distress. Nor did the boat people signal any need for assistance”.
Recapitulating the sequence of events, the spokesman said: “The AFM were informed that a boat had been spotted some five miles off the Gozo north-west coast in the early afternoon of the 17 November 2005 by the Malta Police and not as a Search and Rescue case. It was navigating northerly steadily on course. This was reported by the AFM aircraft to be underway as per Articles 17, 18 and 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, which grants all vessels the right of innocent passage through territorial waters of coastal states.
“The AFM seaborne vessel monitoring the boat was at times as close as 150 metres from the boat and reported that no form of request for assistance was at any time signalled to the AFM vessel’s crew from any of the persons on board of the boat. The AFM vessel remained in the boat’s vicinity for a significant length of time, far in excess to that required by international conventions regarding the safety of persons at sea.”
The spokesman claimed the boat could turn course towards Malta if it felt it was in distress, and that the sea conditions would not have prevented it from changing course and retract to Maltese shores.
“In the circumstances of this case, that is, the prevailing sea conditions (northwesterly swell), it would have been more rational, if the boat was indeed in extremis, for the migrant boat to manoeuvre a change in course towards Malta, thus ensuring following seas rather than brave the beam seas on a northeasterly course,” the spokesman said.
Justifying the P52 boat’s failure to leave base, the spokesman said: “There was no need for the patrol boat P52 to be deployed, as other AFM units that were in the area at no time reported that the incident had degenerated in to a Search and Rescue case; thus in keeping with normal military practice P52 was held in reserve to react to unforeseen developments.”
He said the Italians were informed at 8.07pm via fax, warning them that the boat was approaching Italian waters, with the Italians responding with a phone call only 90 minutes later.
“The Italian Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre was informed at 20.07 hours about the boat which was heading in their direction,” the spokesman said. “The Centre was given the relevant information via urgent fax communication that the boat was entering an area in which the Government of the Italian Republic bears whole responsibility for maritime search and rescue. Telephonic communication was initiated by MRCC Rome only after over 90 minutes elapsed from when the urgent fax message had been sent.”
In an interview with MaltaToday earlier this year, when the log book entries were not yet known, AFM Commander Brig. Carmel Vassallo recapitulated his version of events, declaring for the first time that there was no communication with the migrants on board the boat.
“We sent two boats; a rescue launch and a patrol boat which is not that speedy,” the Commander said. “We reached them when they were 10 miles away, they kept moving on. Whoever was captaining that boat must have been one of the best navigators in the world, he kept steering the boat with the waves further up, he was an expert of the sea. At one point we were between 200 or 150 metres away from them, they never looked back. The Italians have no right to say they had to be towed to Malta, and we had no obligation to stop them.”
Asked if there was communication with the migrants, Brig. Vassallo said: “No, but both from the plane and the boat following them, at no point did they see any waving or signalling. Usually even if they don’t have any breakdown they just stop so that we go for them. They did nothing of the sort. When they were about 20 miles up from Gozo I told them to inform the Italians.”