News | Sunday, 20 September 2009

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Three arrested after high-speed sea chase

Ragusa magistrate issues charges of human trafficking and resisting arrest

Rounds of high-calibre shots were fired across the bow of Valletta-registered powerboat, to put an end to a high-speed chase that led to the arrest of three Maltese men by the Italian authorities.
The men – Madrid-born José Xerri, 43, Michael Aquilina, 35 from Pietà, and Kurt Buhagiar, 26 from Birkirkara – were intercepted shortly after allegedly ferrying 19 African migrants into Sicily, who had been tucked into the belly of the powerboat throughout their journey.
The men were chased for one and a half hours and shot at by a Guardia di Finanza high velocity patrol vessel, that managed to keep up with their four-engine 1,000 horsepower boat in international waters, early yesterday morning.
News reports confirmed that the Italian border police monitored the disembarking of the migrants, before giving chase to the Maltese who were speeding back to Malta.
All three face a maximum of 15 years each in jail if found guilty under the revised tougher immigration laws recently introduced in Italy. According to the Italian magistrates, Xerri, Aquilina and Buhagiar are to be charged with human trafficking, resisting a warship, and attempting to ram it.
The Maltese men were interrogated and transferred to a jail in Ragusa, while investigators have confirmed that a GPS found onboard the powerboat revealed readings that clearly showed they had left from Malta. The GPS had also marked the site where the 19 African migrants – including a woman – were let off.
The arrests reportedly triggered investigations also in Malta with police immediately raiding the known addresses of the three accused, while their families and friends have already activated lawyers who are expected to travel to Sicily on Monday to assist the men.
Senior police sources confirmed with this paper that José Xerri is well known to them and is among the list of “usual suspects”.
Owners of a number of boats that sport high-powered engines have also been asked to hand in their keys pending further instructions.
Italian naval assets have been on the lookout for Maltese traffickers on powerboats after a recent surge in reports of migrant landings on the Sicilian coast.
While the 19 migrants who were intercepted yesterday are to be deported to Malta under the EU’s Dublin II agreement, Maltese police are waiting for their Italian counterparts to supply them with their identities in a bid to trace the migrant centres they allegedly went missing from.
During the past few weeks, this paper reported that the Italian authorities were investigating the “resumed” ferrying of migrants from Malta to Sicily with powerboats.
In March 2005, the police swooped on all high powered-boats around the island and conducted thorough DNA checks in a bid to identify which boat had ferried a group of Chinese nationals to Sicily that ended in the tragic death of six of them off the coast of Pozzallo.
Two Maltese men and a Chinese woman were since extradited to Italy to stand trial over human trafficking.
Figures obtained this week from the Ministry for Home Affairs a total of 228 migrants were returned to Malta from EU states under the Dublin II agreement between January and July. Although the figures also include non-African migrants, the majority of them were reportedly missing from open centres on the island and traced in Italy

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