Libyan military fired on migrants’ boat before capsizing

Survivors tell MaltaToday that they were shot at by a Libyan military vessel before capsizing.

A Palestinian family which was rescued at sea on Friday.
A Palestinian family which was rescued at sea on Friday.

Additional reporting by Tim Attard Montalto

A Tunisian man thought to have been skippering the boat, which capsized 65 miles south of Lampedusa, is among the 146 migrants who were brought in yesterday morning by the Armed Forces of Malta.

MaltaToday has also discovered that the boat capsized after a Libyan military vessel fired on them killing two. It also believed that that there were more than 250 migrants. Among the survivors, believed to be mainly Syrian and Palestinian refugees, is a month-old baby and a couple, who lost track of their three children. It is thought that around 50 persons have died at sea.

The majority of the migrants are Syrian while others claimed to be Palestinian. A home affairs ministry spokesperson said that 117 migrants are Syrian, 27 claimed to be from Palestine, one from Lebanon and the Tunisian man who survivors told MaltaToday was skippering the boat.

Government spokespersons confirmed that a Tunisian man was among those rescued but could not confirm whether he was at the helm of the boat.

Contrary to initial reports, survivors who spoke to MaltaToday at Mater Dei Hospital yesterday afternoon explained that the boat which capsized on Friday was carrying between 400 and 450 persons, including around 100 children.

First reports said that the vessel was carrying just over 200 migrants and capsized after encountering difficulties in Maltese waters just before sunset on Friday.

However, Syrian and Palestinian migrants told MaltaToday that the boat which was around 20-metres long carried many more persons and the real reason why the boat capsized was because the vessel was shot at by Libyan military personnel who were following the migrants in a separate vessel.

The survivors who were at Mater Dei to undergo medical tests at the radiology department explained that they departed from the Zuwarah, the northwester port in Libya after paying $3,000 each to Libyan militias.

One 16-year old Syrian boy recounted how he travelled over 5,000 km from Damascus to Libya, through Jordan and Egypt in less then a week. The boy made the trip together with his parents and two younger brothers, however his father and one of his brothers were rescued by the Italian navy and taken to Lampedusa, while he and the rest of the family were brought to Malta.

"We are extremely tired and hungry, however the only thing we want is to be reunited with my father and brother," the boy said as he stood by his visibly tried mother and seven-year old brother.

The boy said his family fled Damascus to escape the violence which has ravaged Syria, with the number of refugees set to exceed the three million mark by the end of the year.

He explained that after fleeing from their war-torn country, his family made it to Libya and were told that they would be taken to Italy by boat by Libyan militiamen.

However, the migrants who spoke to MaltaToday shockingly revealed that that their boat was shot at by Libyan military forces who followed the boat for hours.

Although only a few migrants could speak in English, many persons who spoke to us at Mater Dei revealed that soldiers shot at the boat, killing two persons.

Two 17-year-old Syrian boys said that this caused the boat to overturn as the migrants panicked after being shot at.

Molham Alrosan, a 20-year-old Palestinian living in Syria, was on the boat with his mother, father and his 10-year-old brother Mohamed.  They were hoping to immigrate to Sweden in search of a better life.

Molham's family travelled from Syria to Libya through Lebanon and Egypt.

Alrosan said that only a short while after leaving Libya, they noticed a Libyan military boat was following them. 

"It followed our boat for six hours and the officers on board it insisted that we turn back.  When our captain refused, they started to shoot at the place where they assumed the engines to be," he said.

"And when that didn't work, they started to shoot as us," he said.

Another passenger on board, also of Palestinian origin, described how they had tried to shoot at him.

"They shot at me but the bullet hit the railing. If it wasn't for that, I'd probably be dead," he said.

The man, who preferred not to be named, was on the boat with his wife. The couple had been living in Libya for a year but due to it "not being safe", had boarded the boat hoping to reach mainland Europe.

He confirmed that the militia boat followed their boat for hours, even when they were outside Libyan waters.

"I remember that they were dressed in casual clothes, but they were definitely militia. I don't know why but even when we were outside the Libyan border, they kept following us," he said.

At least four families who spoke to MaltaToday explained that they were separated from other family members at sea, with Aisha Mustafa, 25, and her husband Aleq, 27,  explaining that their one-year-old daughter, Mara was taken from their hands by Italian rescuers and taken to Lampedusa, while they were brought to Malta.

"I know my daughter is alive, she is completely alone in Italy.  I want her back, I want her to join us here as soon as possible," Aisha said, adding that she had no ide when she could embrace her child again.

Ihad Ali, from Syria explained that his three children, aged five, three and one, were also in Italy while he and his wife were in Malta.

Although most migrants spoke in broken English and some details of their stories did not match exactly with that of others, they all agreed on one thing. Asked what their they hoped for, they all agreed that they want to be reunited with their families and live in peace. 

In a heart-breaking story, a Syrian women living in Norway contacted MaltaToday explaining that her sister, Taghrid had departed Libya on Thursday together with her husband and five-year-old twin daughters, however had not heard from them since then.

The woman asked whether we could help trace her family and on reaching hospital, we spotted a disconsolate man sitting in a corner with his little daughter sitting on his lap.

The man could not speak in English and communicating in a mishmash of Arabic and Maltese the man confirmed that he was father to twin daughters, however he did not know what had happened to his wife and other daughter.

He explained that as the boat capsized, he could only grab one daughter and held her to his chest as they went underwater. However, he did not know the fate of his other daughter and his wife who was also five-months pregnant with twins.

Yet, when asked whether he his sister-in-law lived in Norway the man said that he did not have any relatives living in the Scandinavian country.

A few minutes later, an email reached us from Norway with the names and ages of the women's family and after showing the man the names on the phone, the desolate man jumped to his feet and asked whether we could call his sister-in-law.

With the aid of the Prime Minister's spokesperson, the man called his sister-in-law and while breathing a huge sigh of relief, the man broke down in tears as he explained the travesty he and his family went through.

MaltaToday has also learnt that at least two doctors are among the 146 migrants who were brought to Malta, with one being a dermatologist and the other an orthopaedic specialist.

On Friday, P-61, the AFM's biggest patrol boat, picked up 150 people, who are being brought to Malta. The Maltese crew reached the people on site with a dinghy and launched a life raft which on its own, rescued some 60 people.

Eventually, the Maltese vessel took aboard some 150 survivors while others, including a mother and her infant, were evacuated by air to Lampedusa due to their urgent medical condition.

The AFM also brought to Malta five dead people - three toddlers, an 11-year-old boy and a woman.

With mixed emotions it is quite sad the Libyan military forces shot at and killed two on this boat which made it disabled to carry on causing to capsize.My condolences to the families who lost their loved ones. And finally but not least congrats to the AFM and the Italian personnel who rescued these people and gave them hope for a better life.
It's a horrible thing to hear immigrants say their boat was fired upon immediately after they left Libya. Now are we going to hear the opinion of some Italian tv presenter, journalist or senator about this matter? Or do we smell prejudice against the Maltese by our "fratelli d'oltre mare?"