Malta has rejected claims it left refugees to die from dehydration despite knowing they were trying to cross from Libya over to Europe.
The NGO Alarm Phone announced details of the tragedy in which five people were found dead in a boat and, according to the survivors, another seven are missing, presumed dead.
The drifting craft was eventually picked up by a commercial vessel and the 51 people on board were handed over to the Libyan coastguard, together with the bodies of the five dead.
In a posting they said Malta was “responsible for the deaths” and it also added that they were responsible for “returning the survivors to war, rape and torture”.
It is believed that the boat is the last of four seen floating in the region for several days now, but the Maltese officials say that it was never in their jurisdiction.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said: “The migrants were rescued by a commercial ship from the Maltese search and rescue zone and handed over to the Libyan coast guard.
“We reiterate that people rescued at sea should not be returned to unsafe ports. An alternative to disembarkation in #Libya must be found urgently.”
It is unclear when the boat, which had been drifting for days, crossed from Libyan waters into Maltese waters.
Government officials said Malta’s Rescue and Coordination Centre was aware that a boat in distress was floundering in Libyan territory, and also said that the European Union was aware of the situation because they flew aircraft over the area but had not done anything to collect the migrants.
They said they had acted immediately when the boat had crossed into their waters, establishing the exact location and requesting assistance which was answered by a commercial vessel which picked up the refugees and then put them on a Libyan fishing vessel.
They also repeated the request for the EU to launch a humanitarian mission in Libya to stop people risking their lives to cross over.
But both Malta and Italy last week declared that their ports were closed from now on to migrants because of the corona virus outbreak.
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