Maltese PM Robert Abela says he is 'under investigation' for migrant deaths

Abela arrives for the second day of a special European Council summit in Brussels on Feb 21, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

VALLETTA (AFP) - Malta's Prime Minister Robert Abela says he is under investigation for his role in the death of at least five migrants who tried to sail from Libya to Italy.

Monitors of Mediterranean crossings said five people died and seven others went missing while their boat was in distress off Malta's coast this week.

The boat was reportedly carrying around 55 people. It eventually returned to Libya under disputed circumstances after being spotted by a fishing boat.

On Thursday, Malta's Repubblika civil rights organisation filed two police reports alleging criminal inaction on the part of Abela and Maltese armed forces commander Jeffrey Curmi.

Its second report was filed against 11 crew members of a Maltese patrol boat who allegedly cut the cables of the migrant dinghy's motor.

The prime minister said in a television address late on Friday that he had volunteered to cooperate with the police investigation.

"I was informed that, because of the nature of the accusations, the police have asked a magistrate to launch an enquiry into the armed forces officials and myself," Abela said.

Investigators would probe "the homicide... of several irregular migrants at sea", he added.

"The charge for homicide carries with it a life sentence," the Maltese premier said.

Maltese police reports are automatically investigated. Criminal proceedings can then be launched depending on how much evidence is found.

Both Malta and Italy have closed their ports to migrants, citing the threat of the novel coronavirus.

The Mediterranean representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said "several grey areas remain about what exactly happened".

"But for sure, lives could have been saved, the rescue should not have been delayed, those 'rescued' should not have been returned to #Libya & now need to be rescued from serious risks to their life," UNHCR special envoy Vincent Cochetel tweeted.

Abela said he had acted in Malta's national interest by protecting its citizens from the coronavirus pandemic.

"My conscience is clear because we have done everything in our power to protect our people and all those who live in this country," he said.

Abela insisted that Maltese ports would remain closed until the pandemic subsides.

"In a health emergency, this country is not a safe port for migrants," he said.

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