News | Sunday, 23 August 2009
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Malta ‘willing’ to assist Italians over migrants’ disappearance

The Maltese government has expressed its willingness to fully cooperate and supply all necessary information to the Italian authorities, who are investigating the fate of 75 dispersed Eritrean migrants in the South Mediterranean.
Speaking during an urgent joint press conference, called late yesterday afternoon to counter the onslaught of the Italian media, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tonio Borg, Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Armed Forces Commander Carmel Vassallo, insisted that Malta cannot be held responsible for the alleged tragedy.
“How can Malta be held responsible for something that has clearly happened in Libyan search and rescue waters?” said Tonio Borg, who insisted that it is “extremely unfair” to blame either Malta or Italy for what possibly could have happened.
As Sicilian investigators tried to put together the pieces of the dramatic story told by five Eritrean migrants who were taken into the tiny island of Lampedusa last Wednesday, the Maltese government responded to the wave of criticism leveled at it by Italian home affairs minister Roberto Maroni.
While Commander Vassallo admitted that his navy had intercepted the migrant boat in Libyan SAR waters on Wednesday, and had given the migrants food, water and fuel, he totally denied that his crews deviated the migrant dinghy towards Lampedusa.
“It was the migrants who refused to be taken aboard and brought to Malta and told us that they wanted to proceed to Lampedusa,” he said, and added that the story told by the same migrants to the Italians was the same as what they told his crew.
“We find it very hard to believe that the five migrants were out at sea for a long time, as the men were clean shaven and the boat was relatively clean, indicating that there could not have been 80 people on board before,” the Commander said.
As he explained that the AFM patrol boat shadowed the dinghy until the next morning when the migrants had reached Italian waters, Brigadier Vassallo stressed that it was policy to assist the migrants by supplying them food, water and fuel, but no crew could forcefully take them aboard.
“We kept on asking them if they wanted to come to Malta and we even prepared a standby vessel to take them in, in case they changed their mind,” he said.
About the sightings of eight decomposed bodies allegedly seen by a Malta-based Luxembourg hired aircraft that is assisting the EU’s Frontex mission South of Malta, the AFM commander confirmed that no bodies were recovered and that they were in an advanced state of decomposition.
“This too is a mystery to us as from our experience the bodies could not have come from that migrant boat,” he said, while hinting that from his men’s experience the five Eritreans “could have possibly been dropped off by a passing ship.”
Asked by MaltaToday if the AFM had received any reports from Eritreans in Malta who enquired about a boat laden with fellow migrants had been sighted, the Commander replied, “it is possible”.
The reply tallies with reports that emerged yesterday from NGO’s that a number of Eritreans living in Malta, Sweden and Switzerland had enquired with the Jesuit Refugee Service and also Fortress Europe who were preoccupied about the fate of their family members who left Libya on a dinghy on July 28 but have never heard of them since. Malta never received a distress call.

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