EXCLUSIVE: Swedish Coastguard Fires Warning Shots as it Mistakes Italian RHIB for Smuggler Boat

A Swedish coastguard vessel on Monday fired warning shots at an Italian Navy crew which was approaching on a rigid hull dinghy that was mistaken for a smuggler boat, Migrant Report can reveal.

Photo: Swedish Coastguard

An official on board the Swedish coastguard vessel, Poseidon, asked for the crew onboard the Italian rhib to identify but it did not happen fast enough and warning shots were fired. Photo: Swedish Coast Guard

The friendly fire incident was not publicised but a Frontex spokesperson confirmed it, saying that an officer on board the Swedish vessel Poseidon fired multiple warning shots as an Italian navy crew on board a RHIB was approaching.

“I can confirm that warning shots were fired from the Poseidon. However, I have to make clear that they were warning shots. Nobody was injured and nobody was ever in danger,” Frontex spokesperson Ewa Moncure said.

The vessel itself is not armed so some sort of hand-held weapon must have been used. However, Frontex was not in a position to confirm this information either.

She could not confirm the exact time but said that the incident happened during a rescue operation about 60 – 80 kms off Libya. According to data by the maritime information site Marine Traffic, the likeliness is that it happened between 8pm and 9pm when several vessels were converged in the same area for the rescue of multiple boats.

Screenshot from MarineTraffic.com showing intense activity off Zuwara Libya between 8pm and 9pm on Monday.

Screenshot from MarineTraffic.com showing intense activity off Zuwara Libya between 8pm and 9pm on Monday.

She said the Poseidon had just taken some 350 migrants. “An empty vessel was still in the area when a RHIB started approaching it at high speed. At that point, as is protocol, the Poseidon asked for the RHIB to identify itself but it did not happen fast enough and warning shots were fired,” she said.

Eventually, the boat slowed down and the fluttering Italian flag became visible.

She said Frontex protocols for these sort of situations had become tighter following incidents out at sea when rescuers were approached by smugglers attempting to reclaim empty boats to reuse them.

Clashes on the High Seas

So far this year there have been at least two incidents, one in March and the other in April, in which smugglers’ attempts to recover empty boats turned violent.

In March, an Italian military vessel shot at on the suspected smugglers, while in April, the Icelandic coastguard vessel Tyr came under fire by a group wanting to recover a boat.

They take their chances because the more sought after wooden boats (as opposed to rubber dinghies) are scarce and more valuable. A wooden boat able to carry 500 migrants can fetch up to €50,000.

The European response to this – driven mostly by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – has been to  destroy these boats but also forge a plan to try and intercept the smugglers at sea, arrest them or even attack them.

For this reason, the military operation EUNAVFOR Med was launched. For the time being, the operation has the stated goal of collecting intelligence offshore because it does not have pivotal approval of the internationally-recognised Libyan government to be able to intercept and arrest smugglers within the country’s waters.

The Poseidon seems to form part of this operation, at least informally. According to the Swedish Coast Guard, the Poseidon set off from Gothenburg on May 20 to participate in the “surveillance, search and rescue operations of Frontex operation Triton, in the Mediterranean.

It started its mission on June 1 and is expected to return home towards the middle of September.

The Swedish Coast Guard has taken participated in several Frontex operations with aircraft. On the 30th of April the Swedish Government came to the decision that the Coast Guard was to offer vessels and aircraft for the operational use in Triton. The Coast Guard offered 001 Poseidon, one of the three largest coast Guard vessels, which was immediately approved by Frontex.

Despite the rapid departure of 001 Poseidon, the ship has been equipped for the mission, and the crews prepared for what is approaching. The remaining Coast Guard vessels and staff in Sweden have also an increased preparedness for the summer seasons demands in availability, as one of the major ships is taking on other duties.

Swedish Coastguard issues statement

The Swedish Coastguard published a statement after the MigrantReport story in which it confirmed the incident and underscored that the shots fired were warnings.

Here is the statement in full: “During Monday’s afternoon rescue, on July 27, a situation occurred when KBV 001 Poseidon saw itself forced to fire warning shots to protect both each other’s and the migrant’s own safety.

“The incident occurred during an embarkation of 353 migrants when a smaller boat approached at high speed without any identification. The boat was called upon numerous times by KBV 001 without any response.

“As this situation found place almost 55 NM North-West from the Libyan coast, where the threat is significantly more evident, KBV 001 followed its instructions and warned the approaching boat by firing warning shots.

The boat then turned, and the crew of the boat were able to see an Italian flag at the stern, and immediately after, they were able to identify the boat as a boat coming from the Italian navy. Nobody got hurt during this incident.”