Libyan ‘catalogue of horrors’ militia conducts pushback from Malta SAR zone

Thirty people in distress on a small boat in Malta’s search and rescue (SAR) zone were intercepted by a vessel belonging to the Libyan Tarek Ben Zayed militia group on Monday in another pushback, which humanitarian NGO AlarmPhone says was aided by the Maltese government.

AlarmPhone first picked up the in-distress vessel’s location on Thursday, reporting its location just inside the southeast edge of a search and rescue zone for which Maltese authorities are responsible. The vessel was low on fuel, food and water.

The people on board were at first thought to have been picked up by a commercial vessel but were later confirmed to have been pushed back by the Libyan vessel Tareq Bin Zayed, belonging to an armed militia group of the same name known as TBZ.

A report by NGO Amnesty International has found the group has committed war crimes and inflicted a “catalogue of horrors” on its victims in Libya’s ongoing “crisis of impunity”. They found cases of abductions, torture, disappearances, forced displacement and sexual assault, amongst others.

TBZ forms part of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), Libya’s de-facto governing body, and comprises career soldiers who fought under Mu’ammar Gaddafi in the 2011 civil war and fighters from tribes allied to LAAF.

The vessel, which left from Sirte, Libya, was spotted by Alarm Phone on Thursday after sending distress signals after encountering strong winds and waves. On Friday, the commercial vessel Nippon Princess heeded the distress call and looked for the smaller boat but could not find it.

By Monday, AlarmPhone confirmed the pushback by the Libyan TBZ vessel and “condemned Malta’s role in pushbacks.”

Last July, 250 people in distress on a small boat in Malta’s SAR zone were intercepted by the same vessel and pushed back to Libya. The pushback had occurred despite assurances by Maltese authorities that they would handle the case themselves, according to humanitarian NGOs Alarm Phone and SeaWatch International.

Maltese authorities have been implicated in several pushbacks, with a United Nations mission confirming last April that many people were sent back to countries to face terrible treatment in detention centres, subjected to sexual violence, torture and coercive sexual practices in exchange for water, food and other necessities.

In May, a group of four humanitarian NGOs, which included Alarm Phone and Sea Watch, accused Malta of coordinating another “criminal mass pushback” of 500 migrants to prison in Libya straight from Malta’s own SAR.

Besides standing accused of being involved in mass pushbacks, Malta’s RCC regularly employs non-response tactics with people aboard migrant vessels, refusing to assist even when people on board face fatal conditions.

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