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Migrant SOS calls show Italy, Malta arguing over 2013 rescue

Posted May 10

— An Italian newsmagazine has obtained recordings of telephone calls from a deadly migrant boat sinking, revealing how a Syrian father's desperate calls for help went unheeded for hours as Italy and Malta argued over who should mount the rescue.

"We are dying! Three hundred persons. We are dying!" a man identified as Mohanad Jammo, a doctor from Syria, tells the Italian coast guard in one of the recordings posted by L'Espresso magazine Wednesday.

Some 221 people survived the October 2013 ordeal; 27 bodies were recovered. An untold number went missing.

The sinking was one of two in the span of a week that prompted the Italian government to launch the "Mare Nostrum" rescue operation, which won praise internationally for saving thousands of lives and was eventually replaced by a broader EU-wide operation.

The Italian coast guard responded to the report on L'Espresso's website by noting that the incident occurred in Malta's area of search-and-rescue responsibility. In addition, Italian prosecutors investigated the case and said it should be shelved for lack of a crime, according to a statement.

The recordings begin at 12:39 p.m. on Oct. 11 with a call to the Italian coast guard from Jammo, who reports that his boat, carrying some 300 people, is taking on water and gives his coordinates. L'Espresso said the boat was about 61 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa, 118 miles southwest of Malta.

The Italian coast guard told him that the boat was closer to Malta and he should call Maltese authorities, according to the recordings.

An increasingly frantic Jammo calls again and again, begging the Italians to call the Maltese themselves because his phone was running out of credits.

At 4:44 p.m., Maltese authorities tell the Italians that an Italian patrol ship is closest to the scene. The Italians responded that if they dispatched it, it wouldn't be in place to spot other emergencies and would have to take survivors to the nearest port. At the time, Lampedusa was still reeling from a capsizing off its shores the previous week in which some 369 people died.

The recordings end with the Maltese ringing the Italian operations center back at 5:07 p.m. to report that their airplane had spotted the migrant boat capsizing, and that people were in the water.

"The boat has sank," a voice says.

In the end, both Maltese and Italian ships, as well as a fishing boat, responded to the disaster.

L'Espresso said Jammo, his wife and child were rescued, but that his two other children drowned.

The number of migrants attempting dangerous sea crossings accelerated after 2013. Non-governmental organizations have joined rescue efforts with their own ships patrolling the edge of Libyan territorial waters.

Their presence has drawn the scrutiny of Frontex, the EU border patrol agency, as well as Italian prosecutors who have suggested some aid groups were somehow in contact with migrant smugglers.

Trapani, Sicily Prosecutor Ambrogio Cartosio told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday he is investigating some employees of aid groups — not the groups themselves — but that the alleged contacts wouldn't be a punishable offense since saving lives at sea was paramount.

The groups have denied they're in cahoots with the traffickers and have blasted prosecutors for spreading rumors without providing proof.

Cartosio also said migrants arriving in Trapani have reported that Libyan coast guard officials — recently entrusted with Italian patrol boats and know-how to try to stem the migrant flows — have instead demanded bribes to let the boats continue their journeys north.

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