It is claimed Italian authorities instructed a Spanish rescue ship in the Mediterranean to ignore a distress call from a smuggling boat. The instruction went on to say they should allow the Libyan coast guard to respond to the vessel.
Shortly afterwards, reports began emerging that 100 migrants were missing and feared dead in the same area.
The account was reported by Proactiva Open Arms, just as EU leaders in Brussels signed a deal aimed at controlling migration. The deal steps up support for the Libyan coast guard and demands that humanitarian and other ships operating in the Mediterranean not obstruct their operations. The moves are part of efforts to stop smugglers from operating out of the lawless North African nation.
Open Arms founder Oscar Camps said such demands will cost the lives of people at sea.
"The problem is there won't be anyone to witness this and denounce it, that is what will happen, starting now," Camps said.
In the latest incident, the Open Arms crew intercepted a radio transmission about 8am on Friday between European military officials and the Libyan coast guard. Details were provided of a rubber boat in distress, with at least 100 migrants onboard, said the Open Arms head of mission, Guillermo Canardo.
But an official distress signal was only received by boats in the region on the Navtex navigation system some 90 minutes later.
When Open Arms called the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome to offer help, officials there said the Libyan coastguard had the situation covered and that no assistance was needed.
Shortly afterwards, they received the news that over 100 people were missing at sea and feared dead in that same region.
"We suspect it is the same people," Canardo said.
The Libyan coast guard said they rescued 16 migrants from the boat that had capsized east of Tripoli. They feared about 100 people were either missing or dead. A survivor said there were about 125 people on board, including women and children.
Riccardo Gatti, the captain of another Proactiva ship, the Astral, said he has witnessed tragic rescues performed by the Libyan coast guard, which lacks the most basic equipment, including life vests.
Not only has the Libyan coast guard never answered their coordination centre phones when called by Proactiva, Gatti said they have more than once aggressively told Open Arms and Astral to leave in the middle of a rescue.
He said this includes one incident when they shot into the air and jumped into dinghies to try to take away migrants. Another time they boarded the Open Arms rescue ship with guns, threatening the crew.
"For months now, (the Libyan coast guard) has been presented as an official body, formal, very well-trained and legal, and these are the same people who have shot at us, who have kidnapped us," Gatti said.
"All of this is theatre."
According to AP, the Astral left Malta early on Thursday with four European parliamentarians on board as observers to join Open Arms. However, the boat is unlikely to be able to return to Malta, as the EU island nation close to Libya has closed its ports to humanitarian ships. This comes as the country investigates a private German rescue mission accused of allegedly violating maritime law.
Italy on Friday issued an order barring the Astral from its ports, citing public security.
The Open Arms has already been refused permission to dock in Malta to resupply, and a similar request to Italy has not been answered.
Gatti questioned the reason for his ship's ban, noting the Astral had made no such resupply request. He said humanitarian groups are being targeted by governments for rescuing people who face dire circumstances.
"They say that we are the criminals (for the sea rescues) — but they are the criminals that let 100 people die this morning," Gatti said.