Ocean Viking migrant rescue ship 'not allowed' to refuel in Malta

Ocean Viking, operated by SOS Mediterranee and MSF, started its rescue mission in the Mediterranean earlier this week.

    The ship has room for about 200 to 300 refugees and migrants and still has food and fuel for several days [Clement Mahoudeau/AFP]
    The ship has room for about 200 to 300 refugees and migrants and still has food and fuel for several days [Clement Mahoudeau/AFP]

    Maltese authorities have refused the Ocean Viking rescue ship to refuel in their harbours while on its search and rescue mission off the coast of Libya, according to SOS Mediterranee, the rescue organisation operating the ship.

    According to SOS Mediterranee, which operates the ship with Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials MSF, the Ocean Viking was originally allowed to refuel on open waters.

    "Ocean Viking was scheduled to refuel offshore Malta as is standard practice for ships in the area needing fuel," Laura Garel from SOS Mediterranee told Al Jazeera.

    "This would have been convenient for SOS Mediterranee and the ship since we would be passing through the area in order to reach the central Mediterranean where we conduct our search and rescue activities."

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    Maltese maritime authorities informed the Ocean Viking via VHF radio that the ship had "no authorization to enter Maltese territorial waters", added Garel.

    "We did not receive an official explanation about why we were not allowed to refuel."

    The Ocean Viking, sailing under the Norwegian flag and currently located about 150km from the Maltese coast, started its mission from the French port of Marseille on Monday.

    According to Garel, the ship has fuel and food left for several days and it will now head to the central Mediterranean to conduct search and rescue activities.

    The organisation is looking for a solution for when fuel and food eventually run out, but did not have one as of yet.

    The Ocean Viking has a crew of nine, plus a search-and-rescue team and medical and other staff. The ship can house between 200 and 300 refugees and migrants.

    It set sail seven months after the organisations were forced to abandon the mission using their ship Aquarius.

    After nearly three years of operations, in which it rescued about 30,000 people, the Aquarius was forced to cease operations in December 2018 because of what the groups said was obstruction by some European countries.

    The charities said at the start of the new mission that "426 men, women and children have died" since the beginning of the year in the central Mediterranean while attempting to "escape the escalating conflict in Libya and the deplorable conditions of Libyan detention centres".

    "As people are still fleeing Libya on one of the most perilous sea crossings in the world, and with almost no available rescue assets present in the central Mediterranean, it has been an imperative for both SOS Mediterranee and MSF to return."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies