Italian magistrate absolves AFM following death of five migrants

Armed Forces of Malta vessel extraneous to incident which led to death of five migrants at sea, Italian magistrate concludes

Hundreds of migrants were saved by maltese, Italian and US naval vessels
Hundreds of migrants were saved by maltese, Italian and US naval vessels

An Italian magistrate has absolved the Armed Forces of Malta from any fault over the death of five asylum seekers at sea.

Italian media reports claimed that during a rescue operation involving an AFM vessel and a Maltese-registered tanker, five migrants lost their lives after the patrol boat unexpectedly sailed away, claiming that it was called for another rescue operation.

Upon reaching Sicily, the captain of the Maltese-registered Norient Star complained to the Italian authorities that the AFM members threw life jackets at sea before leaving the scene to reach another boat, which required assistance.

In the incident, five asylum seekers died while being transferred from a dinghy to the tanker, of which only three bodies were recovered.

Yet, an Italian magistrate who carried out an inquiry concluded that the AFM vessel was not connected to the deaths.

The Ragusa mobile squad interrogated the captain of the Norient Star, which rescued 107 migrants, all night long and the Italian authorities were provided with photos and video footage of the incident.

According to Italian media reports, the footage shows migrants in a state of panic after the dinghy they were on hit was punctured after incidentally hitting the tanker. At this point, an nearby AFM vessel launched life jackets before moving on to another rescue operation.

The AFM vessel and its crew left Ragusa early this morning after being acquitted of any fault by the Italian magistrate.

A home affairs ministry spokesperson confirmed that the AFM vessel, which issued instructions to the Norient Star to rescue the asylum seekers, launched life jackets to the migrants and after considering that the migrants were in relative safety, the vessel proceeded to the scene of another sinking dinghy since there were no other naval vessels to assist it.

She added that the AFM vessel acted in accordance to rescue procedures and the second dinghy took precedence because the persons aboard were in serious danger.

AFM statement

The AFM confirmed that the reports in the Italian media were incorrect and explained that the MV Norient Star later reported to the Rescue and Coordination centre in Malta that during the transfer of migrants, the dinghy hit the gangway of the ship and deflated.

"It is crucial to note that had the patrol boat remained with the MV Norient Star and not intervened in the other dinghy the loss of lives would have been potentially of 128 persons," the army's statement added.