World News Digest January

Children place flowers on pictures of disappeared victims in front of a memorial shrine in Manila

Photo by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

 

ICMP’s Daily World News Digest brings together news stories dealing with enforced disappearances and missing persons cases from around the world. It offers a snapshot of daily events and over a longer period it highlights key trends.

In January media reported actions taken by authorities in Asia, notably China, that appear to place government opponents at increased risk of enforced disappearance, while In Vietnam and Sri Lanka, authorities are moving forward with initiatives aimed at accounting for the missing from past conflicts.

China

On 8 January Time Magazine reported a call by the European Union for an investigation into the recent disappearance of five individuals connected to a Hong Kong-based publisher of books critical of Chinese government officials. Two of the missing persons are EU citizens. The EU’s diplomatic agency decried the “continuing lack of information about the well-being and whereabouts” of the missing owners and staff of Mighty Current Media. Reuters reported that thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong on 10 January in a reprise of anti-China protests of over a year ago, demanding to know the whereabouts of the five missing people linked to Mighty Current. The Hong Kong government said in a statement it was “firmly committed to protecting the freedom of expression and freedom of publication”. Time Magazine reported on 12 January that an important legal deadline was due to lapse in the case of missing Hong Kong publisher, Paul Lee, also known as Lee Bo. Under a legal arrangement between the mainland and Hong Kong, mainland Chinese officials must notify Hong Kong police within fourteen days if they have detained a Hong Kong citizen. Lee was last seen near his warehouse in the territory on 30 December and is widely suspected to have been abducted by mainland authorities. He was the fifth associate of Mighty Current Media to go missing. ABC News reported on 17 January that a Hong Kong book publisher whose disappearance sparked international interest had voluntarily surrendered months earlier to Chinese mainland authorities. Xinhua News Agency reported that Gui Minhai, one of the five missing people associated with Mighty Current, surrendered in October, 10 years after he fled China after killing a woman while driving drunk. On 19 January Bloomberg Business reported that Chinese police have confirmed that Lee Bo, who disappeared from the city in late December, is in China. Hong Kong police had requested a meeting with Lee to further understand the incident, they said. The Hong Kong government had requested information on Lee from the Chinese authorities on 3 January.

The Guardian carried a story on 10 January saying that six months after Wang Qiaoling’s husband was spirited into secret detention by security forces, the wife of one of China’s top civil rights lawyers has spoken of her grief and despair. Li Heping, a 45-year-old attorney, disappeared on 10 July 2015 after security officials came to his home at the start of what activists call an unprecedented government crackdown in which more than 240 lawyers and activists were detained or questioned. Exactly six months later, up to 35 lawyers and activists, including Li, are still missing or in custody.  The Local Sweden, a news portal, reported on 12 January that a man known as Peter Beckenridge, who worked for the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group has been detained on suspicion of endangering state security according to another advocacy organization. A document submitted by the group to the UN detailing “intimidation, surveillance, and house arrest” and “physical attacks, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention” of activists listed Beckenridge as a contact. China has recently passed a new law on overseas NGOs which places them under close supervision by Chinese police while operating in the country. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 13 January saying that the Chinese government should immediately release four labor rights activists who were formally arrested in Guangdong province on apparent politically motivated grounds. “These formal arrests of labor activists signify a significant escalation in the Chinese government’s assault on civil society since President Xi Jinping came to power,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. The four were among over a dozen labor rights activists from four workers organizations taken into custody on 3 December by police in Guangdong province. On 13 January the BBC reported that Peter Dahlin is believed to be the first foreign national detained in connection with the current security crackdown. The Chinese foreign ministry said Mr Dahlin, who co-founded a group offering legal aid to Chinese citizens, China Action, is suspected of harming the national interest.  Peter Dahlin’s Chinese girlfriend is also missing and is thought to be in police custody. On 12 January, seven human rights lawyers and their associates who have been missing since last summer were formally arrested and charged with “subversion”, according to their friends and relatives. The Guardian reported on 18 January that leading human rights lawyers from Europe, North America and Australia have called on Chinese President Xi Jinping to end the crackdown on legal professionals. Some detainees are facing subversion charges, whereas others are missing. The group of lawyers said “None of the 12 lawyers still being held have so far been allowed access to counsel, friends or family, and they are effectively disappeared.’’

The Standard, a daily from Hong Kong, reported on 21 January that the Democratic Party has invited the director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Wang Guangya, to visit the city to discuss the disappearance of the five men associated with Mighty Current. Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has said it would be unacceptable and unconstitutional for mainland agencies to take law enforcement action in Hong Kong. The Independent reported on 24 January that the wife of one of the five missing publishers had told police that she has tracked down her husband to a guesthouse in mainland China. Mr Lee was said to be “healthy and in good spirits” and was, he said, assisting Chinese authorities in an investigation in the “capacity of a witness”. In a strangely stilted letter to the Hong Kong police department, reportedly delivered by his wife Lee Bo says: “Firstly, I really appreciate the police’s concern. I have not been kidnapped and definitely have not been arrested on the mainland for [purchasing] prostitution.”

The Bangkok Post carried a story on 24 January reporting that Thai police say they have no information about a missing Chinese journalist who is feared to have been snatched and taken back to China and will only look into the case if the man’s wife reports him missing. The Chinese journalist, who said he was fed up with life as a government informant and fled China last year, went missing in Thailand on 11 January, his wife said on 23 January, raising concerns he might have  been abducted by Chinese agents.

Thailand

The Bangkok Post reported on 8 January that Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sek Wannamethee, had said the government has been active in dealing with enforced disappearances. Mr Sek’s comments came after the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) on 6 January urged the government to step up efforts to investigate the whereabouts of 82 people listed as missing, including respected lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit who went missing nearly 12 years ago while defending people arrested under martial law in the south of the country. UNOHCHR also called on the government to criminalize enforced disappearance in its legislation, in line with international standards. Anadolu Agency reported on 11 January that Thailand’s military has accused local NGOs of seeking to “embarrass” the government by releasing a report on torture in the south. The 59-page Thai language report, titled “Torture”, was released on 10 January. Claims of reforms in the handling of suspects by the military – which human rights groups have long accused of violations such as beatings and enforced disappearances — are refuted by representatives of the NGOs. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 14 January saying that the Thai government should immediately make enforced disappearance a criminal offense and take serious steps to bring those responsible to justice. On 29 December 2015 the Supreme Court acquitted five police officers charged in the March 2004 disappearance of a prominent human rights lawyer, Somchai Neelapaijit, despite the admission by then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that the police were responsible. Since 1980, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance has recorded 82 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand. Anadolu Agency reported on 25 January that 12 years after her husband disappeared in the company of police officers, newly elected Muslim member of Thailand’s human rights commission Angkhana Neelapaijitr says she has made the fight against enforced disappearances her priority. A new law drafted two years ago and supported by Neelapaijitr would allow relatives to act as plaintiffs on behalf of their disappeared relatives. It is now awaiting cabinet approval.

The Bangkok Post carried a story on 26 January about missing minors, noting that at many Bangkok intersections, giant digital screens flash pictures of children who have disappeared. Since the beginning of 2016 more than 70 people have been reported missing, according to the Mirror Foundation, an organization that fights human trafficking. Since 2003 there have been around 3,000 cases of missing persons in Thailand.

Sri Lanka

The Asia Sentinel, a regional news portal, carried a story on 7 January saying that despite high marks for the reconciliation attempts of the Maithripala Sirisena government in Sri Lanka, Tamil citizens continue to be abducted and tortured by security forces, according to a new report by the International Truth and Justice Project. The report details the suffering of 20 victims who have allegedly been kidnapped in the past year. The NGO says “white van abductions” continue.  The BBC reported on 21 January that President Sirisena has said foreign judges and prosecutors should not be involved in an investigation into allegations of war crimes. He said the country did not need to “import” specialists. The government previously backed a UN resolution calling for a war crimes court supported by foreign judges. The president also dismissed reports from the advocacy group Freedom from Torture that people in detention are still being tortured. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 25 January calling on the Sri Lankan government to fulfill its commitments to the UN Human Rights Council by ensuring that foreign judges and prosecutors play a significant role in the mandated accountability mechanism for wartime abuses, and urging Human Rights Council members to make clear that foreign participation in a war crimes tribunal has already been decided by the council and is not subject to renegotiation. In line with its commitments, the government should implement its plans for a war crimes tribunal with international participation, a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation, and Non-recurrence, and an Office on Missing Persons. The Colombo Gazette reported on 24 January that President Sirisena had reiterated his intention to resolve the issue of missing persons. He was speaking to Tamil factory workers in a town formerly under LTTE control.  The Indian Express reported on 26 January that the Sri Lankan Missing Persons’ Commission headed by retired Justice Maxwell Paranagama has asked the government to extend its term by a year from 15 February 2016 as it still has thousands of cases to investigate. In September 2015 UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein asked the government to replace the Commission with a more “credible” body. On 26 January The Tamil Guardian reported that those who surrendered at the end of the war and are still missing in Sri Lanka are “most probably dead”, according to Prime Minister Ranil Wickrememsinghe. “There are no detention centers in the north or the south,” he said. “There are 292 in detention, known to the government, no others.” He added that international involvement in investigations has not been ruled out. The Colombo Gazette reported on 28 January that the US had discussed the issue of missing persons in Sri Lanka during a UN Security Council Arria-Formula Meeting on the Global Challenge of Accounting for Missing Persons. US Permanent Representative Samantha Power spoke about her visit to Sri Lanka and the missing persons issue. She said that in recent months, she had had the opportunity to visit two countries afflicted by huge numbers of missing and disappeared: Sri Lanka and Mexico. She said that relatives of victims in both Mexico and Sri Lanka spoke of how disappearances upended virtually every aspect of their lives. The Guardian carried a story on 29 January about abductions in Sri Lanka, something that police told the wife of a kidnapped journalist “was fashionable”. It says there has been “zero progress” in tens of thousands of missing persons cases in the country.

Vietnam

The international science magazine, Nature, reported on 12 January that smart DNA technologies will be used to identify the bones of the half million or more Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who are thought to be still missing from the conflict of the 1950s-70s. It said ICMP will have a role in training Vietnamese scientists on critical aspects of identification, and quoted the head of ICMP’s Forensics Division, Thomas Parsons, who noted that ‘’It was possible to extract useful levels of DNA from around 80 percent of the bones from the Srebrenica victims. The Vietnamese bones have been in the ground for longer and in a more damaging climate, but highly optimized methods and careful selection of skeletal samples will help.’’ On 14 January The Daily Mail reported that the Vietnamese government has promised to invest US$25 million in upgrading three DNA testing centers to identify remains from the conflict, and that ICMP technology will be used. Open PR reported on 28 January that the Hamburg laboratory Bioglobe has developed a concept for genetic identification of hundreds of thousands of victims of the Vietnam War for the government of Vietnam. It describes the latest initiative as “the largest identification project of all time”, which will involve several Vietnamese ministries as well as ICMP.

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In Latin America and in Negeria more evidence surfaced in January of unwillingness or incapacity on the part of government and judicial institutions to address the issue of enforced disappearance effectively.

Mexico

Telesur news portal carried a story saying that, according to data released on 7 January by the Mexican Network for Children’s Rights, disappearances among adolescents increased by 191 percent between 2012 and 2014. The new figures, which were obtained through the government’s National Registry of Missing Persons database, revealed that seven out of 10 of missing children are girls between the ages of 15 and 17. According to official figures, almost 50 percent of the 22,322 disappeared people in Mexico went missing between 2012 and 2014 under the current administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. US News reported on 12 January that an appeals court ruling is threatening to derail Mexico’s effort to prosecute suspects in the case of the 43 missing students in Guerrero state. The injunction, which came in response to an appeal by lawyers for 22 police officers, found prosecutorial errors including inconsistent testimony and insufficient evidence.  On 14 January Amnesty International issued a statement citing systemic incompetence and lack of will by State and Federal authorities in Mexico to investigate thousands of disappearances. ‘’Treated with indolence: The state’s response to disappearances in Mexico’’ reveals how the deep failings in the investigation into the enforced disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero are mirrored in the northern state of Chihuahua and across the country. Telesur reported on 13 January that the number of enforced disappearances in Guerrero had risen to 22 within a week. On 15 January Telesur reported that four police officers had been detained in the state of Veracruz for suspected involvement in the forced disappearance of five young people. Witnesses say the five had been taken into police custody before they disappeared. Telesur reported on 19 January that a caravan traveling around Mexico to advocate for the 43 Ayotzinapa students had arrived in the southern city of Oaxaca. It said that Attorney General Arely Gomez had informed parents of the disappeared students about new findings, at a meeting that was also attended by the body of experts set up by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. Prensa Latina reported on 20 January that more than 6,000 children and adolescents have disappeared in Mexico, according to UNHCHR Representative Jesus Peña, who told the Senate that 30 percent of persons who disappeared between 2006 and 2014 in Mexico are minors or adolescents. Ismael Eslava of the National Commission of Human Rights urged Senators to discuss legislation on the missing, prioritizing the search for minors and adolescents and increasing statutory punishment for the abduction of people younger than 18. The Independent carried a story on 23 January  saying that three cartel members had been arrested over the disappearance of the 43 students. National Security Commissioner Renato Sales suggested that the three suspects were members of the Guerreros Unidos crime syndicate, which is widely believed to have taken control of the students after they were abducted by corrupt police. The latest arrests mean that 113 people have been arrested, including 44 police officers. Telesur reported on 26 January that relatives of the 43 students marched in Mexico City on Tuesday to mark 16 months since the forcible disappearance of their loved ones. Mexico News Daily carried a story on 26 January saying that the municipality of Cuauhtémoc, in the state of Chihuahua, has recorded the highest rate of disappearances in Mexico. Amnesty International said the total number of people in Cuauhtémoc who had disappeared totaled 351, while official records showed 309. Reports of disappearances in the community have been increasing steadily since 2008 when 26 cases were registered. The Mexican magazine Proceso carried a story on 27 January saying that, speaking at a Security Couuncil event in New York, human rights activist Sister Consuelo Morales Elizondo condemned impunity following cases of disappearances. At the event organized by the United Kingdom and ICMP Sister Consuelo said: “In this effort, the support of international civil society and international institutions, particularly experts such as those from ICMP, Human Rights Watch and the OHCHR, have played a critical role.” Telesur news portal reported on 27 January that in less than a week, 13 people, including two children and a women, were forcibly disappeared by groups of heavily armed men in Guerrero. The increase in violence forced state officials to shut down 36 schools in the state capital and surrounding areas. Arguably the worst case was reported in Ajuchitlan del Progreso, where two boys aged 8 and 9 were forcibly disappeared by a group of armed men.

Guatemala

The Latin One news portal reported on 7 January that Guatemala has detained 14 ex-military officials charged with human rights abuses during the country’s armed conflict. Many of those who were detained had allegedly worked where a mass grave was unearthed. One of those arrested was Manuel Benedicto Lucas Garcia, brother of former president Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia. Thelma Aldana, the Guatemalan attorney general, said that Garcia and the others were being charged in connection with the mass disappearance of at least 558 indigenous people between 1981 and 1988. In 2012, four mass graves were excavated and the bodies of “non-combatant civilians identified by survivors” were discovered. Amnesty International issued a statement on 11 January saying that a new postponement of the trial of Former Guatemalan President José Efraín Ríos Montt’s on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity is “a slap in the face of the victims still trying to heal the wounds of decades of brutal civil war.” The Latin Correspondent carried a story on 20 January saying that a Guatemalan judge has re-opened proceedings against 11 retired army officers currently under arrest for forced disappearances and crimes against humanity. Judge Claudette Dominguez said there is sufficient evidence to prosecute 11 of a total of 14 soldiers held by the prosecution. Of 558 remains of alleged victims, 97 have been formally identified.

Nigeria

Ireland’s RTE News reported on 14 January that President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria has ordered a new investigation into the kidnapping of 219 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in April 2014 from the town of Chibok. The decision comes after parents of the girls and the ‘’Bring Back Our Girls’’ movement marched to the presidential villa to demand a meeting with Buhari. Pulse Nigeria reported on 20 January that the Academic Forum of Islamic Movement of Nigeria has asked the Nigerian Army to release the bodies of students allegedly killed during the Army-Shi’ite clash in Zaria, Kaduna State. “We don’t know their whereabouts so we are demanding for these people that are missing. The Army should give us the corpses of those killed so that we can go and bury in accordance with Islamic rites,” said a member of the Forum. On 25 January Voice of America covered a visit by three UN special investigators to three displaced persons camps in Borno State. Boko Haram’s nearly seven-year quest to impose strict Islamic law across the country’s northeast has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than two million others. In recent months, Nigerian troops have rescued large groups of people taken captive by the militants; most were women and children. Urmilla Bhoola, special investigator on contemporary forms of slavery, urged the government to increase efforts to locate the Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.

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Civil society activists in Egypt have documented numerous cases that appear to show the authorities using enforced disappearance to silence opposition voices, while the Houthi authorities in control of Yemen’s largest city, Sana’a, have been accused of doing the same. Meanwhile, mass graves and other evidence point to the reisntitution of slavery by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the mass killing of abducted civilians and captured soldiers.

Egypt

Daily News Egypt carried a story on 16 January saying that the Ministry of Interior had revealed the whereabouts of 118 citizens about whom information was requested by the state-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). “Regarding complaints about claims of enforced disappearances, the Ministry of Interior said that 99 of the names are held in different detention facilities pending legal cases,” the statement read.  Sherif Mohieddine, a lawyer at the independent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said the disclosures by the ministry were a “confession to the crime”. On 19 January the IkhwanWeb news portal carried a story on the abduction of Dr Mohamed Elsayed, Director of Qenayat Central Hospital in Sharqeya northeast of Cairo. The report says that the whereabouts of Dr Elsayed, arrested on 24 August 2013 by security forces, are still unknown. Daily News Egypt carried a story on 20 January on arrests of alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Some of the arrested disappear into the opaque realm of the detention facilities or they are subject to extrajudicial killing at the time of arrest. The number of enforced disappearances, therefore, increases,” it said. The Independent reported on 21 January that on 9 January, Dr Ahmed Abdullah, chair of the board of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, narrowly escaped an attempt by security agents to abduct him at a coffee shop in Giza. Dr Abdullah’s organization is at the forefront of the call for an end to enforced disappearances in Egypt. It provides support to families of the disappeared including legal aid. On 25 January Amnesty International reported that Dr Abdullah is in hiding after his NGO exposed a surge in enforced disappearances. The New York Times carried a story on 26 January saying that after the security forces raided the home of Islam Khalil, a 26-year-old salesman, last summer, he seemed to vanish without a trace. Mr. Khalil had not been formally arrested, so his family could not determine where he was being held. Mr. Khalil finally emerged, four months later, at a police station in the port city of Alexandria. He is one of hundreds of Egyptians who have recently been subjected to enforced disappearance, the report said.

Iraq/Syria

CNN carried a story on 12 January on the brutality experienced by Yazidis at the hands of Islamic State, including the reported abduction of around 600 children from Sinjar and the surrounding Yazidi villages. On 14 January Ahlulbayt News Agency reported that three mass graves were found in the village of Abu Hamam in Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zour, according to the Syrian Center for Human Rights.  “The dead bodies found in the newly discovered mass graves are believed to belong to members of the Shaitat tribe who have been massacred” by Islamic State, Syrian lawyer and spokesman of the Center for Human Rights Ibrahim Hussein said. A source added that 37 corpses were found in the three mass graves. Several children and women were among the victims. The center had earlier documented six mass graves that have been left by Islamic State in Deir al-Zour. CNBC carried a story on 20 January saying that an estimated 3,500 people, mainly women and children, are being held as slaves in Iraq by Islamic State, according to the UN. Iraqi security forces and allied groups including Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have also killed and abducted civilians, it said. The BBC reported on 17 January that Islamic State militants in Syria may have abducted 400 civilians during a bloody assault on Deir al-Zour. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said people were taken from areas in the north-west of the city. The report from the London-based group could not be independently verified. The Washington Post reported on 17 January that U.S. and Iraqi authorities are searching for three Americans reported missing from a neighborhood in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. At least one report said the Americans had been kidnapped by gunmen. Iranian broadcaster On 26 January Press TV carried a story saying that Iraqi police have found a new mass grave in the western province of Anbar, containing the remains of scores of people believed to have been executed by Islamic State. The source said the mass grave is thought to contain the remains of as many as 50 civilians and soldiers killed on 28 December. Yahoo News carried a story on 28 January saying that Iraqi authorities have uncovered a mass grave in Ramadi containing at least 40 bodies, including women and children, apparently killed by Islamic State when they seized the city in May.

Yemen

On 10 January Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying that Houthi authorities in Yemen have arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared dozens of people in the capital, Sanaa. It said many people appear to have been arrested because of their links to Islah, a Sunni political party that is opposed to the Zaidi Shia Houthis. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 16 January saying that Yemen’s Houthi authorities should immediately provide information about two protesters forcibly disappeared after mass arrests in the city of Ibb on 12 October 2015. Ameen al-Shafaq and Antar al-Mubarizy should be immediately released unless the authorities provide a lawful basis for holding them, the statement said. On the evening of 12 October, 34 journalists and activists held a meeting on the sixth floor of the Garden Hotel in Ibb to plan a protest against the Houthis. Six armed men interrupted the meeting and detained 29 people, while five others managed to escape. Doha News reported on 22 January that three members of an Al Jazeera Arabic news crew had been kidnapped in Yemen. They were covering events in the besieged city of Taiz just before they went missing. They were last seen on 18 January. Taiz, the country’s second most populated city, is officially controlled by the Yemeni government and troops loyal to the exiled Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, but for months has been under siege by Houthi forces.

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Inclement weather has not staunched the flow of desperate refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean on unsafe vessels in a bid to find safety in Europe.

Reuters reported on 9 January that dozens of Ethiopian and Somali migrants died in the waters off the breakaway Somalia region of Somaliland when their vessel failed mechanically in the course of the voyage and drifted in the sea. Ninety-six bodies were washed ashore. The Local a news portal from Italy, reported on 11 January that four people, possibly all women, were missing after being thrown into the sea by human traffickers off the Salento coast in southern Puglia. The migrants were among a group of over 40 Somalis, including a 10-year-old boy and 21 women, travelling towards the southern Italian region from Greece. Reuters reported on 14 January that the bodies of nine people, some of whom may have drowned up to 10 days earlier, had been found on Turkey’s western coast. The coastguard said separately it had found the bodies of a girl and two women after a boat partially capsized. It rescued 13 people, but a search continued for two men and a boy. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 24,000 crossed the Mediterranean to Greece and Italy in the first two weeks of January. Today’s Zaman, a daily from Turkey, reported on 26 January that the bodies of migrants who drowned when their boat capsized on 21 January in the Aegean were to be transferred to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) at the request of the Kurdish administration. Twenty-five refugees were saved, while 13 migrants, five of whom were children, died and 11 went missing. The New York Times reported on 28 January that at least 24 people drowned and 11 others were missing after a boat carrying Iraqi Kurds sank off the Greek island of Samos in the Aegean, close to the Turkish coast. The Italian Navy also rescued 290 migrants on 28 January and recovered six bodies from the water near a half-sunken rubber boat off Libya, en route to Italy.