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Armed bandits interrupt a rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean off Libya, an aid group says

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ROME (AP) — An aid group that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean says one of its missions was interrupted by armed bandits who boarded the overloaded smugglers’ boat and sped away with it after the migrants threw themselves into the sea.

SOS Mediterranee filmed the incident Tuesday. The group said it occurred about 46 nautical miles north of Zuwara on Libya’s western coast, a frequent launching point for smuggling operations to bring migrants to Europe.

According to the video, SOS Mediterranee volunteers were helping transfer the 93 passengers from the wooden boat onto their rescue vessel when two rubber dinghies approached.

A masked bandit leapt onto the migrant boat, sparking panic among the remaining passengers, who threw themselves into the sea. The bandit took control of the empty boat and steered it away from the scene as the SOS Mediterranee crew plucked people from the sea.

It wasn’t clear if the bandits were trying to recover the boat for future smuggling operations. Often, when Italian maritime authorities encounter such boats, they intentionally sink them as a matter of maritime safety.

But Valeria Taurino, general director of SOS Mediterranee, said governments are providing fewer resources to rescue operations, leaving aid groups to do the job in increasingly dangerous situations.

“The lack of rescue vessels left by the states in recent years in the central Mediterranean has generated a reckless increase in armed presence and illegal and dangerous actions for both the fleeing shipwrecked people and aid workers,” she said in a statement.

Italian authorities say the presence of humanitarian rescue ships in the Mediterranean only encourages migrants to take the risky voyages, a charge they deny.

The rescue was one of several reported by rescue groups this week, as smugglers appear to be taking advantage of summer’s often calm seas. That said, the number of migrants arriving in Italy this year by boat – 27,744 – is less than half the 72,036 who had arrived by this time last year, according to interior ministry statistics.

The right-wing government of Premier Giorgia Meloni has made limiting migration a priority. It has signed deals with individual African countries to block departures, imposed limits on the work of humanitarian rescue ships, cracked down on traffickers who reach Italy and taken other measures to deter would-be migrants from setting off.


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