Aid ship with 403 migrants rescued off Libya docks in Italy

A European organization that operates migrant rescue ships denounced what it characterized as a chaotic maritime rescue system in the central Mediterranean Sea as one of its vessels disembarked hundreds of rescued passengers at an Italian port Wednesday.

The Ocean Viking, which is jointly operated by SOS Mediteranee and the medical nonprofit Doctors Without Borders, arrived in the southern port of Taranto with 403 of 407 migrants rescued off Libya during five operations within a 72-hour period. A woman who suffered serious burns and her three children were previously evacuated from the ship to island nation of Malta.

SOS Mediteranee operations director Federic Penard said it took the ship 10 hours to reach the location of the last two rescues and that Maltese armed forces handled a third.

People wait to disembark from the Ocean Viking rescue ship, at the Taranto harbor, Southern Italy, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. The SOS Mediterranee NGO ship disembarked 403 migrants rescued over the weekend in the Mediterranean Sea. (IngenitoLaPresse via AP)

He said current coordination and rescue operations on the dangerous central Mediterranean route are chaotic and there are not enough rescue ships on the lookout for people in trouble.

‘’The main issue is how to rescue these people," Penard said.

The Twitter account for Alarm Phone, an emergency hotline for people crossing the Mediterranean, had a post saying it was alerted in the past five days of nine boats in distress carrying about 650 people in total.

‘’All of them escaped war-torn #Libya and reached #Europe!'' the tweet said.

Penard called for renewing dedicated government-led rescue operations, like Italy's former Mare Nostrum patrols or the European Union's Operation Sofia. The latter stopped operating ships last March and is limited to aerial surveillance.

‘’There is complete chaos in terms of coordination between the maritime authorities in Europe and the maritime authorities in Libya,'' Penard said. ‘’Each rescue, we feel, is a bit of a miracle that we find the boats.''

The migrants who landed in Italy included 12 pregnant women and 132 unaccompanied minors as young as 12-years-old and 20 families, according to government officials.

Malta opened a port Wednesday to the Alan Kurdi, a rescue ship run by a German humanitarian group that was carrying 77 rescued migrants. The Maltese government said it would accept 50 of the passengers for processing of asylum claims and the others would be transferred to other European countries.