Berlusconi strikes conciliatory tone on Lampedusa incident

Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi says Malta was right over rescue of migrants near Lampedusa.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has proved the Armed Forces of Malta right on the incident concerning migrants rescued off Lampedusa last week, publicly rubbishing his own interior minister Roberto Maroni’s assertions that “Malta did not respond” to a distress call by migrants in difficulty.

Berlusconi – who was visiting the island of Lampedusa last Saturday – was asked by an Italian journalist to comment on “Malta’s unwillingness” to rescue migrants at sea.

The journalist was referring to Thursday’s incident just 30 kilometres away from Lampedusa, when some 200 migrants drowned after their boat capsized when Italian coast guard boats approached them.

“Malta has limited capabilities, but it made more sense for us to [Italy] to respond to the rescue rather than Malta which was far more distant to where the distressed migrants were,” Berlusconi said.

Maroni has repeatedly criticised Malta on the incident for not dispatching rescue boats when the migrants called for help via satellite phones.

Berlusconi’s statement was not reported on Italian media but was noted by many Maltese who followed the live broadcast of Berlusconi’s question and answer session with journalists on Italy’s national station, RAI.

Minister Maroni is a prominent politician from the Northern League party, which is part of Berlusconi’s coalition government, and faces crucial regional elections in the coming weeks.

The Northern League is desperate to hold on to Northern Italian regions to keep its influence on Berlusconi’s government.

The statement triggered the ire by the Maltese government through Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici, who produced evidence on how the Maltese immediately responded to the distress call by referring the emergency to the Italian coast guard, given that the migrants were a mere 90 minutes away from Lampedusa and eight hours from Malta.

He also reiterated that the migrants’ boat had capsized when the Italian coast guard boats had reach them.

The Italian Prime Minister’s comments were made a few hours before another incident developed between Malta and Italy over rescued migrants at sea.

While the AFM was actively involved in the search and rescue for the lost migrants of last Thursday’s incident, the Italian coast guard informed the Maltese patrol boat on another boat that was close by.

The Maltese picked up 170 migrants from a sinking boat but were repeatedly refused entry into Lampedusa. The migrants were subsequently brought to Malta.

This incident triggered both Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and Foreign Minister Tonio Borg to react and condemn Italy’s attitude towards Malta and accused Italy of being in breach of “humanitarian obligations,” while also insisting that “if Lampedusa is not safe, then Italy is not safe.”

But as Malta and Italy bicker over legal interpretations, more migrants continued to land on both Malta and Lampedusa.

Yesterday morning, another group of 116 persons fleeing the civil war in Libya were rescued by two Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) patrol vessels.

The rescue mission was made during the course of the night, when  their boat was adrift in a position 45 nautical miles (NM) south-west of Malta, and 47 NM East of Lampedusa.

The 50-foot wooden boat, laden with Chadian and Somali migrants, was drifting aimlessly after stopping without fuel and with an engine fault. The body of a dead 29-year-old migrant woman was also recovered.

Meanwhile, Malta is bracing itself for the imminent exodus of fleeing Libyans from war in the war-torn North-African country.

Intelligence reports circulated to all EU member states, suggests that thousands of Libyans are on the move and pressing on the Tunisian borders, while others are fleeing to the coastal areas in a bid to set sail towards Europe, with Malta and Italy being in their immediate sight.

The situation in the Libyan Tunisian Border is shifting in an unprecedented way. The small border town of Dhehiba, about 300 miles south of Ras Jedir, witnessed the arrival of about 300 Libyan families over the last two days.

The UN refugee agency reports that more than 500 Libyans, mostly ethnic Berbers, have fled their homes in Libya’s Western Mountains and sought shelter in the Dehiba area of south-east Tunisia over the past week.

“They have told us that mounting pressure on the cities of the Western Mountains by government forces, lack of basic medical supplies and shortages of food prompted their departure,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told journalists in Geneva.

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Well, Sig. Berlusconi is said to have striked a conciliatory tone on the Lampedusa incident. But what is he going to do about it? Is he going to take them to Italy?Only this will make justice to Malta. I can remember a similar situation,but the other way round,when Italy sent back to Malta a number of irregular immigrants that were rescued in our territorial waters. What Mr.Par Idejn Sodi is going to do about it?