The EU should stop financing the Libyan coast guard, critics said on Friday, after video footage emerged of a Libyan patrol vessel shooting at a boat full of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Italy.
The Libyan vessel tried to ram the tiny boat packed full of migrants in an apparent attempt to push it back to the Libyan coast from where it had set off.
At least two rounds were fired from automatic weapons, with the bullets sending up spouts of seawater just yards from the small blue boat. The Libyan vessel came within just a few feet of hitting the boat several times.
Libya’s coast guard has been accused by humanitarian organisations of pursuing an aggressive interception and push-back policy in a bid to stop migrants and refugees from reaching Europe.
"The funding of the so-called Libyan coast guard should cease," said Erasmo Palazzotto, an MP with LEU, a centre-Left Italian party.
"The attempt to ram a boat full of migrants and the shots fired at it are shameful and something that Europe is paying for."
The Libyan vessel came within just a few feet of hitting the boat several times
Valentina Cuppi, the president of the centre-Left Democratic Party, also said Italy should no longer provide funding to the Libyan coast guard. "We must not support those who do not respect human rights," she said.
The boat used by the Libyan coast guard was reportedly donated by Rome.
The dramatic footage was recorded on Wednesday by a plane belonging to Sea Watch, a German NGO which rescues migrants in the Mediterranean.
"Those who shoot at refugees and try to capsize their boats are not there to save them. The EU must immediately end co-operation with the Libyan coast guard," Sea Watch said.
In the video footage, members of the NGO can be heard pleading with the Libyans to stop their aggressive behaviour.
"They’re shooting. Please keep more distance, don’t shoot at the people. Stop shooting in the water. What you do is very dangerous, over," a woman says.
Another Sea Watch volunteer asks: "Oh my God. Are they throwing sticks at them?" A woman replies: "Yeah, they got them."
The boat was reportedly donated to the Libyan coast guard by Italy
Sea Watch condemned the incident as a "brutal attack by the so-called Libyan coast guard", and said that it took place in international waters where Malta is responsible for search and rescue.
Libya’s maritime authorities admitted that the coast guard vessel had fired warning shots at the boat.
The Libyan navy issued a statement condemning "any acts that violate local and international standards and laws" and vowing to hold those responsible to account. It acknowledged that the coast guard vessel had endangered the lives of migrants.
Peter Stano, spokesman for the European Commission, described the incident as “cause of concern” and said Brussels had demanded an explanation from Tripoli.
EU countries have given extensive training and equipment to Libya in an attempt to prevent the exodus of migrants from the North African country.
The German NGO said that it had later received reports that the boat had arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Thursday morning.
Nearly 15,000 men, women and children have been intercepted by the Libyan coast guard and returned to Libya since the start of the year – a record number.
So far this year, around 700 migrants and refugees are reported to have drowned trying to cross from Libya and Tunisia to southern Europe.
More than 20,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, three times as many as the same period last year and nearly 10 times as many as in 2019, according to the Italian Government.