Naval Service defends actions of patrol ship during migrant rescue
Trial of alleged traffickers in Sicily hears defence of LÉ Niamh role in 2015 rescue
The LÉ ‘Niamh’: was under orders from “Dublin” not to proceed within 16 nautical miles of the Libyan coast for safety reasons.
The Naval Service has said it stands over the actions of the LÉ Niamh when it came under pressure from the Italian coastguard during a rescue of some 400 migrants in the Mediterranean in August 2015.
Tensions between the Italian coastguard and the Naval Service patrol ship emerged last week during a trial in Sicily of three men accused of people trafficking in the Mediterranean.
Between 200 and 300 people are believed to have drowned in the incident, which the Naval Service has described as one of the most difficult encountered during the two years it has been assisting the Italian authorities in migrant rescue.
The trial of the three men in Palermo, Sicily, heard a defence claim that a delay in responding to a request for help may have contributed to loss of life.
However, this is not borne out by contemporary accounts that the overloaded wooden vessel with at least 600 people on board began to list, and then sink, only after the LÉ Niamh had arrived on scene and launched two rigid inflatable boats. Survivors spoke of people having been locked in the hold by alleged traffickers.
In an edited recording of an exchange between the Italian coastguard and the Naval Service patrol ship, the LÉ Niamh pointed out that it was under orders from “Dublin” not to proceed within 16 nautical miles of the Libyan coast for safety reasons.
The vessel in difficulty was 13 nautical miles off Libya at the time of the initial alert.
In the recording, Italian coastguard head of operations Capt Leopoldo Manna cited the 1979 Hamburg Convention which delimits search and rescue areas, and reminded Cdr Ken Minehane, senior Naval Service officer on board, of his responsibilities in a search and rescue situation.
However, Cdr Minehane said the ship was “proceeding” and would “make an assessment as to whether or not it is safe for this ship” to conduct a search-and-rescue operation.
When the overloaded migrant vessel sank, within 30 seconds, the captain of the LÉ Niamh deployed extra life rafts, instructed the crew to throw life jackets to struggling survivors, two Naval Service divers volunteered to assist, and the captain “declutched” the engines to ensure propellers posed no risk to people in the water.
During the rescue, an unknown vessel approached the LÉ Niamh at speed and then altered course after a “few tense minutes”, according to Naval Service press officer Lt Cdr Caoimhín MacUnfraidh in an account published subsequently in An Cosantóir, the official magazine of the Defence Forces.
The Médecins Sans Frontières Dignity 1, which had arrived after the sinking, assisted in the rescue, along with two Italian navy ships and a helicopter. A total of 25 bodies were recovered.
University College Cork maritime law expert Dr Bénédicte Sage-Fuller said that “generally war ships comply as much as possible” to the search and rescue requirements “for obvious reasons”.
The LÉ Niamh had initially sought cover from the Italian navy, but this was not available as a search and rescue had not been formally declared, according to the Naval Service.
It has pointed out that a Turkish ship had recently been damaged by artillery fire from the Libyan coast in this same area.
The European Network Against Racism Ireland asked for “clarity” from the Government for future Irish rescue missions. The Naval Service has so far saved 15,621 lives since deployment of ships to the Mediterranean in May 2015 under a bilateral arrangement with Italy.
The LÉ Eithne, which was ready to return to the Mediterranean on May 1st, is awaiting Government approval to sail south.