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Italian coast guard rescues 2,400 migrants off Libya

Some of the migrants abroad the rubber boats jumped into the water in an attempt to reach the larger vessel. Photograph: (AFP)

WION Libya Oct 22, 2016, 11.48 PM (IST)

Horrific scenes unfolded in the Mediterranean off Libya Saturday as a full-to-capacity rescue ship was forced to sail away from desperate migrants trying to swim towards the rescuers. 

In a 24-long rescue operation, the crew of the Norwegian Siem Pilot and another aid boat pulled 14 dead bodies from the water and rescued around 2,400 migrants, according to the Italian coast guard. 

The rescuers had limited resources as they struggled to rescue panicked migrants in the dark. "I've never had a SAR (search and rescue) like it. We were in the process of transferring 1,000 migrants from the Okyroe (tanker) to the Siem Pilot when suddenly, in the dark, rubber boats appeared. It looked hopeless," said Pal Erik Teigen, the police officer in charge of the rescue operation.

25 migrants aboard the rubber boats in an attempt to reach the ship, Siem Pilot, which was already full to capacity, threw themselves into the water to swim towards the vessel. With migrants crying out for help, the captain was forced to pull back to deter others on the dinghy from doing the same. 

The migrants were transferred onto the tanker to await rescue by another vessel, while the Medecins Sans Frontieres charity's Dignity vessel picked up the dead. "It was chaos on the tanker. They were pushing us towards the only way off the boat, coming from everywhere and pushing for lifejackets, arguing over them," said Jan Erik Valen, an intelligence officer and crew member who provided security for the operation. 

"Then they came up from behind us and we had to call for back-up. Other police officers from the Siem Pilot joined us with riot shields... we were banging our sticks on pipes to make a lot of noise, and we had to hit a few of them." 

Many of the migrants fainted during the rescue mission and had to be dragged on board the ship. Others sat in tight rows on the bridge of the ship, with only a thin sheet of webbing to protect them from the baking sun. Among the migrants were several young children, as well as entire families and some unaccompanied teenagers.

The operation was just one part of a massive effort underway in the Mediterranean to rescue desperate migrants making the perilous journey to Europe. The number of migrants attempting the journey has increased in recent weeks to land in Europe before the treacherous winter conditions. 

(WION with inputs from AFP)

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