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The Bourbon Argos attacked off the coast of Libya (v2)

The Bourbon Argos (Credit: MSF)

(BRUSSELS2) We learn it now. The Bourbon Argos — one of three ships (1) on which MSF operates in the Mediterranean to rescue migrants — was attacked off the Libyan coast a few days ago, Wednesday (August 17) morning.

A suspicious ship near the coast

The Bourbon Argos was then 24 miles from the coast when it was approached and attacked by a group of armed men aboard a speedboat with no apparent sign to identify it. It was around 9:15 a.m. when the suspicious speedboat was spotted. The men on board began firing shots at the ship chartered by the NGO, while continuing their journey. They were then at a distance of 400 to 500 meters.

Refugees in the secure area

Given the suspicious nature of the approach (no distinctive sign, no radio communication), the alarm was quickly raised on board. The crew took refuge in the secure area inside the ship - a structure that most commercial ships used to traveling in risky areas now have (2) -. Arriving near the ship, they boarded. “ The gunmen stayed for about 50 minutes, without stealing or moving anything » we tell the NGO. Then they left. The damage to the ship was “minimal”, although there were traces of several gunshots.

Well trained men

There were no rescued people on board that day and no crew members or MSF staff were injured. But the alert was hot. “ This was a serious and worrying attack that could have put our staff in serious physical danger recognizes Stefano Argenziano, MSF's operations coordinator. " We do not know the identity of the attackers or their motivation » we tell the NGO. But their way of acting Our initial assessment of the facts shows that they were professional and well trained ».

MRCC alert

Le Italian Center maritime rescue coordination (MRCC), alerted, transmitted the information to the various forces on site, in particular to EUNAVFOR ships. The German support ship, Werra (A-514), was not far from there, 11 miles from the event, and headed towards the Bourbon Argos. Two helicopters from the Garibaldi, the flagship of the European operation, also immediately took off to provide air cover, and above all to gather as much information as possible on possible suspicious activity in the region. In less than 20 minutes, they were in the area according to testimonies. “ No suspicious activity not'has been recorded », indicated a European source to B2, when ships and helicopters reached the action zone. A statement apparently contradicted by the testimonies of another NGO

(update) A second ship targeted?

After the attack on the “Bourbon Argos”, the star headed towards the “Sea-Eye”, a ship belonging to a German NGO. “ They came very close, 0,7 nautical miles (about 1,3 kilometers) from us » testifies one of the volunteer sailors, Raphael Brodbeck to the Bale newspaper, Basel time. The intervention of the navy helicopter “ scared them away ". The NGO ship was then escorted on the high seas by the German ship Werra. “ Apparently the perpetrators [of this attack] were very professional confirms the sailor. Their goal was " to take hostages and not theft. " The three armed men who boarded the “Bourbon Argos, systematically searched the premises without taking valuables ».

Enhanced security measures

Following this incident, an emergency meeting was held in Malta between the various NGOs present (3). With determination: continue to act but learn lessons from the incident. “These attacks could be repeated. Each organization must therefore take its own measures, in particular to strengthen security measures. “ It is clear that we do not want to be too close to the Libyan coast, we must provide an [additional] security zone. It is also necessary to reinforce the safety rooms on the ships underlines Raphael Brodbeck.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

(1) In addition to the Bourbon Argos, two other ships: the Dignité I and the Aquarius are used by MSF teams (in partnership with SOS Méditerranée). Since the start of operations on April 21, 2016, they have helped save 10.925 people during 84 rescue operations.

(2) The Company Bourbon who owns the ship is used to these attacks. One of its ships, the Bourbon Alexandre, was attacked off the coast of Nigeria in September 2010 (Read: 3 French captured near the coast of Nigeria. To be distinguished from Somalia), two years later, in October 2012, in the same area, it was the turn of the Liberty 249 to be attacked, using the same process (read: 7 sailors kidnapped off Nigeria). More recently, in the Gulf of Guinea, the Bourbon Liberty 251 was attacked quite violently on February 23 (Read: A Luxembourg ship attacked in the Gulf of Guinea. 2 hostages)

(3) Off the coast of Libya are the ships of around 10 NGOs which sometimes compete with each other to go and collect the refugees. It's a bit of a rescue race. Because there are challenges in the race for donations, testifies Raphael Brodbeck in the Baselzeitung.

(updated) Article updated with additional elements on the second attack attempt

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).