The Libyan navy fired two warning shots after a migrant rescue ship was seen patrolling near Libyan waters on Monday.
Open Arms, a humanitarian aid vessel belonging to the Spanish NGO ProActiva said it was chased away by Libyan coast guards although it was within its territorial bounds at around 1.5 miles from Libyan territorial waters.
In a statement, the Libyan navy said the Open Arms rescue boat was within the remit of the Libyan Coast Guard’s search and rescue operation and asked the boat to leave. When it didn’t, they opened fire into the air.
The Libyan Coast Guard said the Open Arms ship had been “wishing for a precious trophy” of illegal immigrants.
Speaking to CNN by phone on Tuesday, Libyan Brigadier Qassem said, “We are capable of conducting rescue work. Our presence cancels their presence.”
“We are fed up with these organizations. They increased the number of immigrants and empowered smugglers. Meanwhile, they criticize us for not respecting human rights,” he added.
A source close to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, field marshal of the so-called Libyan National Army, told CNN on Tuesday that he wouldn’t comment on the incident specifically, but the Libyan National Army are closely monitoring the situation in their waters and have been given authority to react “according to situation.”
He also said that the authority included military reaction if required, even against the Italian naval vessels that have begun patrols off Libya, citing national sovereignty as a priority.
Missions under fire
NGO rescue ships such as the Open Arms boat are facing increasing pressure as Italian authorities have stepped up efforts to restrict the number of migrants attempting to cross the deadly sea route between Libya and Italy over the last few weeks.
Last week, the Italian government announced they would deploy two naval ships to Libya following Libya’s initial request for help to deter illegal migration and human smuggling into Europe.
In late July, Italy’s parliament passed a controversial “code of conduct” for NGOs operating search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, asking that the rescue boats take armed police onto their vessels in what they say is an effort to crack down on human smugglers.
Only three of the eight humanitarian boats signed it, with groups like ProActiva and Doctors without Borders saying the terms of the code could increase fatalities at sea.
But on Tuesday, ProActiva eventually signed the code.
ProActiva founder Oscar Camps told CNN that he believed they were being bullied by Italian authorities to sign it.
On Monday, another one of their rescue boats, the Golfo Azzuro, spent almost 24 hours in international waters as Italian and Maltese ports refused to let them in.
The Golfo Azzuro had also come into contact with the far-right ad-hoc militia boat, Defend Europe, who had broadcast a slew of threatening messages to the rescue operation.
“We will watch you and the days of you unwatched are over,” Defend Europe broadcast to the group.
On Tuesday, the boat had still not been accepted into either European port.
“This had never happened in the past. And never were we threatened three times in a day: by the Libyan coast guard – funded and trains by Italy and the EU – by the fascist boat Defend Europe, and now by the Italian authorities,” Camps said.
A growing crisis
Libya is a well-known jumping-off point for many migrants seeking refuge on European shores. Many, from sub-Saharan Africa, are fleeing war and persecution; others from impoverished nations in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have opted to risk their lives on the treacherous journey in the search for better economic opportunities.
Libya has become the base for a well-oiled human trafficking operation that’s relied on the country’s lack of effective central governance to operate with relative ease.
Since the start of this year, 2,385 migrants have died on the central Mediterranean route, according to the International Organization for Migration; 114,287 migrants have reached European shores, of which 85% are Italian arrivals.
CNN’s Vasco Cotovio, Sarah El Sirgany and Ruth Hetherington contributed to this report.