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NGOs halt migrant rescue operations, citing Libya 'threat'

Libyan navy has fired on NGO ships

(CNN) - Two non-governmental organizations have said they are suspending migrant search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean because they feel threatened by the Libyan authorities.

Germany-based NGO Sea-Eye cited an "explicit threat" to humanitarian organizations from the Libyan government as it announced its decision Sunday in a statement on its official Facebook page.

"We decided with a heavy heart to temporarily suspend our planned rescue missions in the Mediterranean," the group's founder Michael Buschheuer said.

"The reason for this is the changed security situation in the Western Mediterranean, after the Libyan Government announced an indefinite and unilateral extension of their territorial waters -- in connection with an explicit threat against the private NGOs. Under these circumstances, a continuation of our rescue work is not currently possible. It would be irresponsible towards our crews."

The announcement came a day after a similar decision was made by Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF.

MSF said Libyan authorities had announced the establishment of a search and rescue zone on Friday, and restricted access to humanitarian vessels into the international waters off the Libyan coast.

"If these declarations are confirmed and the orders are implemented we see two grave consequences -- there will be more deaths at sea and more people trapped in Libya," said Annemarie Loof, operational manager for MSF.

Libya is a popular jumping-off point for migrants hoping to reach European shores. Many of them are fleeing war and persecution while others are seeking better economic opportunities. The North African country is a well-established base for a human trafficking operation that sees smugglers operating with more ease because of the country's lack of effective central governance.

'Security risk'

MSF said Saturday that it had been warned there was a security risk by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome.

The humanitarian organization said it had asked Libyan authorities to adhere to the internationally recognized legal obligation to rescue boats in distress, and to allow this to take place in international and Libyan waters.

"MSF further requests that Libyan authorities clarify that all boats, operated by NGOs or anyone else, will be permitted to conduct these rescue activities unhindered and unharmed and that the Libyan nor Italian authorities will interfere with the legally guaranteed right to disembark people in a place of safety," it said in a statement.

MSF said its medical support team would still assist in rescues aboard the SOS Méditerranée-run boat Aquarius, which is currently patrolling in international waters.

Libyan navy fires shots

The suspension of rescue operations by Sea-Eye and MSF comes less than a week after a Spanish NGO, ProActiva, said two of its ships were chased away by Libyan coast guards.

The Libyan navy confirmed that it had fired two warning shots in the air to scare away a Spanish NGO ship near Tripoli on Monday morning.

ProActiva said the ship concerned was the Open Arms, which was outside Libyan territorial waters, 13.5 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. The Libyan navy said the vessel was at the border of territorial waters and refused to comply to orders to leave the area.

"Even if they were 13 nautical miles away, they were still within the premise of Libyan search and rescue operations. They don't have permission to work there," Brigadier Ayoub Qassem, a spokesman for the Libyan Navy, told CNN on Tuesday.

The Italian government announced earlier this month that it would deploy two military ships to Libya in an effort to deter illegal migration and human smuggling into Europe. Humanitarian groups warned that the move would expose migrants to more danger on an already treacherous journey.

The vast majority of those reaching Europe this year have landed in Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration. As of August 9, at least 2,242 migrants had died this year attempting the Central Mediterranean crossing, according to its estimates.


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