Army refuses MaltaToday’s Freedom of Information request on Lampedusa

Army does not explain why it is refusing information, MaltaToday demands internal review

Some 268 are believed to have perished at sea in the Lampedusa shipwreck of 11 October.
Some 268 are believed to have perished at sea in the Lampedusa shipwreck of 11 October.

The Armed Forces of Malta has refused a Freedom of Information request by MaltaToday, on the specific details concerning its rescue mission in October to save some 200 asylum seekers shipwrecked off Lampedusa.

MaltaToday has asked for a review of the AFM's refusal, before submitting a complaint to the Information and Data Protection Commissioner.

The AFM invoked two entire schedules to the Freedom of Information Act, for a blanket refusal of MaltaToday's request.

The information commissioner (IDPC) has already instructed, in a separate FOIA request lodged by MaltaToday with the police force, that public authorities must include "pertinent specific applicable articles and not the Parts of the Act as justification" for refusal.

But public authorities are now refusing to collaborate with newspapers on FOIA requests, and the government has not yet appointed an appeals tribunal to be able to examine final decisions by the IDPC.

The AFM failed to specify why it was refusing MaltaToday's request for exact timelines in the way it effected the October rescue.

The questions MaltaToday asked were:

1. At what time did the AFM receive a rescue call from Rome Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC)? Who was the person at RCC who communicated this rescue call? Can the AFM convey the exact content of the rescue call?

2. How many rescue calls did the AFM receive on 11 October, and were there any rescue calls from Thuraya phones belonging to the people on board the boat in distress? Did an AFM officer/official speak to any person on board the boat in distress?

3. At what time did the AFM dispatch its assets, both air and naval, to locate the boat in distress? Kindly specify at what time the King Air left Malta base and at what time did it locate the boat in distress?

4. Did the AFM send out any calls for merchant vessels and other commercial boats to answer to the distress call - was there any response? Wwhich were the boats that answered, what were their actions)?

5. At what time did the patrol boat P-61 leave Malta to effect the rescue mission? At what time did it arrive at the rescue spot?

6. At what time did the AFM request Rome (Italy) to assist it in the rescue mission? Which were the boats that assisted the AFM?

7. Can the AFM confirm whether it asked Rome to effect the rescue mission since the boat was located closer to Lampedusa, and due to the proximity of the ITS Libra which was out at sea at that moment?

The Armed Forces is being asked to explain what could have possibly been a two to three-hour delay on the fatal 11 October shipwreck, and which may also explain why the Italian coast guard did not effect a faster and timelier rescue mission when it was first alerted to a boat in distress that would later result in the deaths of 268.

Just over 200 lives were saved by the Maltese and the Italians during the shipwreck.

The AFM first located the boat at 4pm on 11 October, using its King Air aircraft - but that was three hours after the Italian coast guard informed the Maltese army with the coordinates of the boat in distress.

It is crucial to learn at what time the Hawker Beechcraft King Air plane left Malta after Rome's Coordination Centre passed on the rescue mission at 1:05pm.

A chronology of the events of the day as relayed by Admiral Felicio Angrisano to Italian weekly L'Espresso, revealed that the Italians offloaded the responsibility for the search-and-rescue mission to Malta, when an Italian naval asset - the ITS Libra - was closer to the boat in distress.

Although the migrants[ boat was located within Malta's search and rescue zone, the boat was also 60 nautical miles (113km) south of Lampedusa island, and 218km away from Malta.

What is unclear at this stage is whether Italy and Malta were collaborating with each other at that point when, at 1:05pm, the Italians decided to pass the buck to Malta.

While the Italians say they passed on the rescue coordination to Malta at 1:05pm, it is unclear as to what took place between this hour and the AFM's location of the boat at 4pm. Admiral Angrisano says the time the King Air located the boat is at 4:22pm.

According to L'Espresso, Italy's Libra patrol boat - apart from the merchant vessels Stadt Bremerhaven and the Tyrusland, respectively carrying flags of the Marshall Islands and the United Kingdom - was already 27 miles away from the rescue point. From data collected by Goldsmiths University's oceanographic project, it is believed that the Libra - out on patrol to protect Italian fishermen from Libyan militias - could have made it to the rescue point within 90 minutes at its top speed of 37 km per hour.

What is sure is that the Italians did not despatch the Libra any sooner. In fact it was only after the AFM's patrol boat P61 arrived on the scene at a time between 5:07pm and 5:15pm, that it alerted the Italians for assistance.

As confirmed by Admiral Angrisano, the Libra and Espero naval assets, as well as coast guard and Guardia fi Finanza, arrived on the scene soon after.

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Raymond Mintoff
The biggest democracy in the world has a time frame of at least 30 years before making military and other information public, why should it be different. If anybody has proof of some misdeed it is them their responsibility through the courts or the media to bring it to light. AD is simply fishing maybe it could catch some sardine that might help in the coming MEP elections.

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