• #Frontex and the pirate ship

    The EU’s border agency Frontex and the Maltese government are systematically sharing coordinates of refugee boats trying to escape Libya with a vessel operated by a militia linked to Russia, human trafficking, war crimes and smuggling.

    Tareq Bin Zeyad (TBZ) is one of the most dangerous militia groups in the world. It is run by Saddam Haftar, the powerful son of East Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. The group has been operating a vessel, also called TBZ, in the Central Mediterranean since May, during which it has intercepted more than 1,000 people at sea off the coasts of Libya and Malta and returned them to Libya.

    Experts say the militia would not have been able to find the refugee boats without help from surveillance planes. We analysed several interceptions carried out by the TBZ boat in Maltese waters. These are known as ‘pullbacks’ and are illegal according to Maritime experts. We found that TBZ receives coordinates from EU planes in three ways:

    – Direct communication through a Frontex mayday alert. On 26 July, a Frontex plane issued a mayday (a radio alert to all vessels within range used in cases of immediate distress) in relation to a refugee boat. TBZ answered within minutes. Frontex only informed the nearby rescue authorities of Italy, Libya and Malta after issuing the mayday. They did not intervene. Frontex admitted the plane had to leave the area after an hour, leaving the fate of the refugees in the hands of a militia. It would take TBZ another six hours to reach the boat and drag people back to Libya.


    – Indirect communication through Tripoli. Frontex routinely shares refugee vessel coordinates with the Libyan authorities. In Frontex’s own system, they recorded that on 16 August the coordinates they shared with Tripoli were handed over to TBZ and led to an interception.

    – Direct communication with Malta’s Armed forces. On 2 August, a pilot with a Maltese accent was recorded giving coordinates to TBZ. Hours later, the TBZ vessel was spotted by NGOs near the coordinates. Malta’s armed forces did not deny the incident.


    Both Frontex and Malta say their aim when sharing the coordinates is to help people in distress.

    Responding to our questions on the 26 July mayday, Frontex said its experts decided to issue the alert because “the vessel was far away from the shoreline, it was overcrowded, and there was no life-saving equipment visible.”

    However, in all of the cases we analysed there were safer options: merchant ships were sailing nearby -– much closer than the TBZ ship – and NGO vessels or the Maltese or Italian coast guards could have assisted.

    According to international law expert Nora Markard “Frontex should have ensured that someone else took over the rescue after the distress call – for example one of the merchant ships, which would have been on site much faster anyway.”

    Markard added: “Frontex knows that this situation is more of a kidnapping than a rescue. You only have to imagine pirates announcing that they will deal with a distress case. That wouldn’t be right either.”

    The TBZ is described by the EU as a militia group affiliated with warlord Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army in confidential documents obtained by this investigation. We also found confidential reports showing that EU states are aware of the illicit nature of many of TBZ’s activities – including human trafficking. The group was described in an EU report as being supported by Russian private military group PCM-Wagner.

    Frontex declined to comment on whether TBZ was an appropriate partner.

    We obtained confidential EU documents, tracked position data from European surveillance aircraft and cargo ships, monitored social media of militia members on board the TBZ vessel, spoke to insider sources in EU and Libya institutions and reached out to linguistic experts to analyse a radio communication.

    We were able to speak to seven refugees who were dragged back to Libya by the TBZ and gave harrowing accounts of mistreatment.

    All the refugees we spoke to reported abuse at the hands of the militia, including torture, forced labour and ransom payment. One of them, Syrian Bassel Nahas*, described a three-week ordeal that he did not think he would survive.

    He said TBZ crew shaved his eyebrows and lashes and mutilated his head. “They beat us until our bodies turned black,” he said. “Then they threw our bodies in the water”.

    Bassel said he and other refugees were left in the Benghazi harbour next to the docked vessel for hours overnight, the salt burning their wounds, before they took him out at 4am and beat him more.

    Finally, Bassel recounts, the armed men made him wear an orange prisoner suit and stand against a wall. They opened fire, laughing as he collapsed. It was only when he regained consciousness and checked his body for blood that he realised the bullets hadn’t hit him.

    A Frontex drone was filming Bassel’s boat while it was intercepted by TBZ several days before, on 18 August. Bassel recounts the moment the militia approached: “We told them to leave us alone, that we had children and women on board. But they accused us of having weapons and drugs and opened fire on our boat.”

    Frontex claims that due to poor visibility on that day “detailed observations were challenging”. The same drone spotted Bassel’s vessel two days before its interception by TBZ and shared coordinates with Malta and Greece.

    Frontex declined to comment on whether its coordinates were used to intercept Bassel’s vessel and on allegations of torture and human rights abuses by TBZ.

    Jamal*, a Syrian from the southwestern province of Deraa, recalls that after being intercepted at sea on 25 May he was taken “to a big prison” where they were beaten “with sticks and iron” and all their belongings – “[their] passports, [their] cell phones” – were confiscated. “There was no water available in the prison. We drank in the bathroom. They fed us rice, soup or pasta in small quantities. We were held for 20 days by the Tariq bin Ziyad brigade,” he said.

    Several people report that they were forced to work to earn their freedom. “What this brigade did to us was not authorised, it was slavery. They sold us to businessmen so that we would work for them for free,” said Hasni, who was intercepted on 7 July by the TBZ.


    #Malte #frontières #contrôles_frontaliers #migrations #réfugiés #Russie #Libye #Tareq_Bin_Zeyad (#TBZ) #milices #collaboration #Saddam_Haftar #Khalifa_Haftar #Méditerranée #mer_Méditerranée #pull-backs #sauvetage (well...) #PCM-Wagner #drones