U.S. Navy Ship That Rescued 40 People from Deadly Shipwreck Is Still at Sea as Italy Refuses Boats Carrying Migrants Safe Harbor

A U.S. Navy ship that completed its first rescue operation off the Libyan coast on Tuesday saved at least 40 people from a shipwreck, while 12 people likely drowned—the latest tragedy to strike in the Mediterranean sea.

The USNS Trenton, the Military Sealift Command's expeditionary fast transport ship, found itself on the site of a shipwreck of a rubber boat carrying more than 60 people. In accordance with international law, the crew rendered assistance to those in distress.

"Forty people have been recovered and are being provided food, water, and medical care on board Trenton. U.S. authorities are coordinating with our international partners to determine their ultimate disposition," the U.S. Sixth Fleet said in a statement, on Tuesday without mentioning the number of those who did not survive the shipwreck.

"During the operation, the Trenton crew initially observed approximately 12 bodies in the water that appeared to be unresponsive," a spokesperson for the U.S. Navy Sixth Fleet, told Newsweek.

After the 40 survivors were brought to safety, the crew returned to search for the other 12 people, but they could not be found. "[They] did not find any additional persons at the scene. If necessary, U.S. Navy ships are able to preserve remains in refrigerated storage," the spokesperson added. "The first priority was to save those that were alive."

The Trenton then contacted the Dutch-flagged vessel Sea-Watch 3, operated by a German non-governmental organization (NGO) to carry out search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and asked for assistance. The vessel reached the Navy ship at the designated location, about 20 miles off the Libyan coast, saying in a tweet on Tuesday 41 people were rescued and 12 died at sea. The 12 people who died added to the death toll of more than 700 people in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year, as reported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Sea-Watch 3 could not take the survivors on board, according to Reuters, due to the lack of assurance of a safe docking from Italian authorities. "We have the capacity to take them on board, but we will only do so if there is a written statement by Italian authorities that we will be able to disembark them within 36 hours," Sea-Watch spokesperson Ruben Neugebauer told the news agency.

Sailors from the Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport USNS Trenton (EPF-5) render assistance to mariners in distress that they encountered while conducting routine operations in the Mediterranean Sea June 12, 2018. U.S. Navy photo/Handout/Flickr

Over the weekend, Italy's deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo Salvini and infrastructure minister Danilo Toninelli gave the order to close Italian ports, claiming the country could not keep on shouldering arrivals on its own. The Italian government said it will keep docking ships carrying migrants bearing the Italian flag. Foreign ships "will have harbors that will welcome them. We'll do our part but we can't be left alone" Salvini told reporters on Tuesday.

One day on from the rescue, the U.S. ship and the humanitarian vessel had not yet received permission to dock. "12 bodies & 41 survivors of yesterday's rescue still on U.S. Navy vessel, and yet no assigned port of safety. Since U.S. Navy isn't part of civil rescue fleet, we hope, for the sake of the people, double standards will apply once more and the nearest port of safety can be entered," Sea-Watch tweeted on Wednesday.

At the time of writing, the Trenton is currently still at sea, approximately in the same area where the rescue operation took place. The crew was taking care of the 35 men and five women who survived. "We believe that four of the people are under the age of 18. Based on interviews conducted on board, we believe the people to be from the following countries: Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Nigeria, the Republic of Central Africa, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Sudan," the U.S. Navy spokesperson said. The destination of the ship remain to be decided. "We are coordinating with our international partners to decide the destination of the people on board," the spokesperson added.

Sea-Watch has not yet responded to a request for comment from Newsweek, but the group condemned the lack of coordination on immigration policy in the European Union in a statement released on Wednesday. "NGO vessels have consistently taken responsibility for search and rescue activities in the world's most dangerous migration route, yet they have become the scapegoat of the Italian government," the statement read. "Sea-Watch therefore urges the European states to make way for a political solution for this charade; after safe arrival to Italy, there are also many roads that lead from Rome," it added.

U.S. Naval Forces Europe said 40 people were rescued and brought on board of the USNS Trenton, where they were given food, water & medical care on June 12, 2018. U.S. Navy photo/Handout/Flickr

While Italy is the E.U. country that has received a majority of those who have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year— 14,330 people, according to the IOM—Greece has received nearly 12,000 arrivals, and Spain more than 9,000. The IOM noted that the number of arrivals has more than halved compared to the same period last year.

Italy's decision to close its ports also forced the Gibraltar-flagged humanitarian search-and-rescue vessel Aquarius, which was carrying 629 people saved over the course of six operations in the weekend, partially in coordination with the Italian Navy and Coast Guards, to take a three-day journey to Spain to find safe harbor—Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez offered to welcome the vessel in Valencia on Monday after both Italy and Malta refused it docking.

Aquarius received support from the Italian Navy as it made its way to Spain and was briefly allowed to dock in Sicily to refurbish its supplies. At the time of writing, the vessel was currently sailing towards Spain, but it would proceed along Sardinia's eastern coast to seek shelter from adverse weather and maritime conditions, according to NGO SOS Mediterranee, one of the non-governmental organizations that operates the vessel along with the Doctors Without Borders NGO.

An Italian Coast Guard ship instead arrived in the Sicilian town of Catania on Wednesday, carrying 932 people who were rescued off the Libyan coast in the past few days. According to Italian news agency Ansa, the ship also carried the bodies of a Somalian man and a Somalian woman who were found dead, hugging one another, on a rubber boat.

This story and its headline have been updated to reflect the dynamic of the rescue with information obtained from the U.S. Navy after publication.