French prosecutors Thursday charged five military personnel over failing to come to the resue of dozens of people aboard a stricken migrant boat crossing the Channel to Britain in 2021, a judicial source said.
The sinking of the small boat in the Channel in November 2021 left 27 migrants dead, mainly Iraqi Kurds aged between seven and 46, the worst such disaster in recent times.
Several sources close to the case had said earlier that the authorities had in recent days detained nine people, including several military personnel deployed as coastguards in northern France, in the probe into the tragedy.
One source familiar with the matter said the five ultimately charged after hours of questioning included three women and two men on duty at the Channel rescue centre at the time.
They were charged with failing to assist persons in danger, said the judicial source who asked not to be named. The five remain free and it is extremely unusual for serving military personnel to be subject to any kind of judicial control.
– ‘Finally shedding light’ –
The probe in France is focusing on allegations that French service personnel on duty in the north of the country failed to respond properly to the distress calls of those on board.
In legal documents seen by AFP, French authorities are accused of ignoring calls made by the stricken migrants for help some 15 times.
Le Monde newspaper in November published revelations based on documents contained in the French legal investigation, saying passengers first contacted France’s Channel rescue centre at 1:48 am on November 24 to say their vessel was deflating and its engine had stopped.
They sent their locations via WhatsApp around 15 minutes later.
“We can only welcome the fact that things are progressing from a criminal point of view, that we are finally shedding light on this case and that the words of the victims and the relatives of the victims can finally be heard at a judicial level,” responded Flore Judet, spokesperson for Utopia 56, an association helping migrants.
According to one transcript of a telephone conversation seen by AFP, a migrant told the French coastguard on the phone: “Please help! (…) I’m in the water!” “Yes — but you are in English waters,” replied the coastguard.
“No, not English waters! French waters! Please can you come quickly!” the voice insisted, before the conversation was cut off.
France has already charged 10 suspected people-smugglers, mainly Afghans, over the tragedy. The deaths of the migrants ratcheted up tensions between Paris and London but people are still continuing to make the dangerous crossing.