The German NGO Sea-Watch has said that a vessel with Libyan coastguard insignia attacked a dinghy carrying migrants and that the NGO's rescuers had pulled more than 100 from the water, but four had died.
A rubber boat packed with some 150 migrants was attacked by the crew of a speedboat labeled "Libyan Coast Guard" during a rescue operation on Friday, leading to four deaths, according to the German NGO Sea-Watch.
The group was delivering first aid to the migrant's rubber boat 14 nautical miles off the Libyan coast when the Libyan Coast Guard vessel arrived, Sea-Watch said in a statement posted on Facebook.
The men then began attacking refugees by "entering the rubber boat and hitting them with sticks," the rescue group said.
"The violent intervention of the Libyan Coast Guard caused a situation of mass panic on board the rubber boat in distress," the Sea-Watch statement read. "One tube of the rubber boat collapsed, causing the majority of the 150 people to slip into the water."
The group recovered four bodies and managed to rescue 120 out of the estimated 150 people on board. Sea-Watch said it was still conducting rescues in the area.
A spokesman for Libya's naval forces in Tripoli told the Reuters news agency that he was unaware of the incident. Both Italy's Coast Guard and a spokesman for the European Union's operation Sophia combating human-trafficking in the Mediterranean said they had no information about the attack.
Libyan training mission to start
It was not immediately clear whether or not the Sea-Watch report would impact plans to start training up to 100 Libyan Coast Guard members next week as part of the EU's Operation Sophia.
The first round of training is set to take place on two Italian and Dutch ships off the coast of Libya, according to information the German government provided to parliament. Equipment and trainers will be provided by Germany, Italy, Greece, Belgium and Great Britain.
"Next week training starts with the Libyan coast guard," Sea-Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer told Reuters. "We think it's quite important to think about with whom we are collaborating."
The use of so-called "push-backs" by members of Libya's Coast Guard to prevent refugees from reaching Europe is well known, but they are not usually associated with physical violence.
At least 3,654 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, according to data from the United Nations. Despite worsening weather as winter approaches, many people are still attempting the dangerous crossing.
rs/msh (AFP, dpa, Reuters)