Migrant's desperate SOS calls show Italy and Malta arguing over 2013 boat rescue
An Italian news magazine has obtained recordings of telephone calls surrounding 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.
Some 221 people survived the October 11 2013 sinking but 27 bodies were recovered and a n unknown number of people 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 the L'Espresso magazine 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 12.39pm on October 11 with a call to the Italian coast guard from Mohanad 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 south-west of Malta.
The Italian coast guard told Mr Jammo that the boat was closer to Malta and he should call Maltese authorities, according to the recordings.
An increasingly frantic Mr Jammo calls again and again - "We are dying! Three hundred persons. We are dying!" - begging the Italians to call the Maltese themselves because his phone was running out of credit.
At 4.44pm, Maltese authorities tell the Italians that an Italian patrol ship is closest to the scene.
The Italians responded that if they dispatched it, it would not 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 centre back at 5.07pm to report that their plane had spotted the migrant boat capsizing, and that people were in the water.
"The boat has sunk," a voice says.
In the end, both Maltese and Italian ships, as well as a fishing boat, responded to the disaster.
L'Espresso said Mr 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 organisations 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.
Ambrogio Cartosio, prosecutor in Trapani, Sicily, told a parliamentary committee he is investigating some employees of aid groups - not the groups themselves - but that the alleged contacts would not be a punishable offence since saving lives at sea was paramount.
The groups have denied they are in cahoots with the traffickers and have criticised prosecutors for spreading rumours without providing proof.
Mr 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.