The lead smugglers behind the Pylos shipwreck are closely linked to General Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan warlord who EU leaders are partnering with to curb migration
On the night of 13 June, a vessel carrying around 750 men, women and children mainly from Pakistan, Egypt and Syria capsized in Greek waters. Only 104 men survived. All women and children died.
In an earlier investigation we revealed Greek coastguard efforts to cover up their role in the fatal shipwreck. The country’s naval court has since launched a preliminary investigation into the coastguard’s response to the sinking, with no arrests or suspensions of officers so far.
The only arrests made were those of nine Egyptians, accused in a separate inquiry of being part of the smuggling network behind the deadly voyage. They were charged with six counts including illegal trafficking of foreigners, organisation crime and manslaughter by negligence.
Using the contacts and documents already available to us, we pursued a follow-up investigation to establish the truth about any smugglers behind the fatal sea crossing, with the aim of identifying the key players and establishing the extent to which the nine Egyptians in prison in Greece are actually responsible.
Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SIRAJ, El País and Reporters United used the previously established relationships with survivors and their families, as well as a network of sources in Libya, to investigate the smuggling network behind the Pylos wreck.
We also looked into the ongoing court case against nine alleged smugglers, analysing confidential court documents and speaking to five of the families of those arrested.
While investigating the circumstances that led to the shipwreck and Greece’s responsibility in it, we spoke to 17 survivors.
Many named the key smugglers involved in organising the trip during our interviews with them – none of them were people on board the ship.
Some were Eastern Libyan nationals with ties to the region’s powerful ruler, Khalifa Haftar.
One name stood out: Muhammad Saad Al-Kahshi Al-Mnfi. Three sources identified him as a key player in the smuggling operation: a survivor, a lower level smuggler and a Libyan insider all gave his name.
Al-Kahshi works for a special forces navy unit called the “frogmen”, run by a family member of his, Bahar Al-Tawati Al-Mnfi. Al-Tawati Al-Mnfi works under the direct orders of Khalifa Haftar.
One survivor explained that Al-Kahshi Al-Mnfi used his position to issue the licence that allowed the boat (which came from Egypt) to navigate in Libyan waters and made sure the Libyan coast guards were paid to shut off the marine radar devices that detect ship movements to allow the departure.
We found that the network goes far beyond Al-Kahshi Al-Mnfi.
Survivors, insiders and analysts explained that the trip was organised with wide ranging support from powerful people reporting to Haftar.
Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui said the “migrant business” had been flourishing in Eastern Libya in the last 18 months. “Haftar cannot say that he’s not aware,” he added. “He can’t say that he’s not involved.”
“All trips are overseen by his son, Saddam Haftar” said one survivor. “Saddam leads the cooperation himself or assigns one of the frogmen battalions [this may have been the case for the Pylos trip] or the 2020 battalion, depending on who has more migrants to pay the fees.”
Five survivors who flew from Syria to Libya describe how immigration officials facilitated their arrival at Benghazi’s military airport. One said: “At the airport, a person took my passport, went to immigration office, put a stamp and took us outside”.
There was a curfew in Eastern Libya on the night of departure (حظر التجول ليلاً في طبرق الليبية), yet the survivors we interviewed said that it was at night that they, along with hundreds of passengers, were taken to a small bay near Wadi Arzouka, east of Tobruk, and boarded onto the vessel.
Militias supported by Khalifa Haftar are not only involved in smuggling, they are also active in illegal “pullbacks” of migrants in EU waters.
At least two pullbacks (in May and July this year) were carried out by a militia (Tariq Bin Ziyad) controlled by Haftar’s son, including one in Maltese waters.
At least four of the people who died in the Pylos shipwreck were on the boat that was pulled back by the Tariq Bin Ziyad militia on 25 May, according to family members.
These findings raise serious questions about EU member states’ migration prevention policies.
It is known by EU authorities that Eastern Libyan militias answering to Haftar carry out both pullback and smuggling operations. The IOM and the UNHCR briefed EU officials on an increase in departures from eastern Libya , describing them as a “lucrative source of income for the eastern Libyan rulers involved”.
In spite of this, Italy and Malta are making deals with Haftar to prevent migration.
In May, Haftar met with Italian PM Meloni to discuss migration related issues and in June Italy’s interior minister said they would ask Haftar to collaborate in stopping departures.
The same month, for the first time, a Maltese delegation met Haftar in Benghazi to discuss security challenges in the region, with particular emphasis on irregular migration.
Internal EU documents show the commission is looking for ways to curb arrivals from Benghazi’s airport with the collaboration of local operators.
Harchaoui described Italian efforts to encourage Khalifa Haftar to stop departures as “bribery” and pointed to “a very clear admission of how Italy intends to work and what it promised to Haftar: if you reduce the human smuggling volumes, we will inject capital”.
Meanwhile, there’s growing evidence that nine Egyptians imprisoned for trafficking in Greece are being scapegoated.
We spoke to the families of five of the nine Egyptians under arrest – all of them say that they were passengers, not smugglers.
Three of them provided evidence that their relatives paid for their trip, indicating that it’s highly unlikely that they were involved in organising the smuggling operation.
We were able to verify the identity of a smuggler who asked one of the accused men for money ahead of the trip.
We previously found that witness testimony provided to the coast guard had been tampered with, including survivors’ answers to questions about smugglers.
In the documents, two answers to questions about smugglers contain identical sentences.
Those who were interrogated by the coast guard mentioned being pressured to place the blame on the nine Egyptians later indicted.