After the smugglers, the rescue: the investigation into the sinking of a boat that led to the death of 27 migrants in the Channel in November 2021 accelerates with the indictment Thursday, May 25 of five soldiers suspected of having mistaken in their rescue mission that night.

Nine people, including at least five soldiers from the Regional Operational Center for Surveillance and Rescue (Cross) Gris-Nez in the Pas-de-Calais, had been placed in custody in recent days and questioned by the Research Section of the maritime gendarmerie of Cherbourg, according to a judicial source and a source close to the case.

According to the source close to the case, the five soldiers, three women and two men, were presented Thursday afternoon to the investigating magistrates of the National Jurisdiction for the Fight against Organized Crime (Junalco) of the Paris Judicial Court. According to a judicial source, these five people were indicted for failure to assist a person in danger and released at the end of their interrogation.

The Code of Military Justice severely restricts the possibilities for military personnel to be placed under judicial supervision. These three women and two men were all assigned to the Cross at the time of the facts, according to the source close to the file.

In this case, the French authorities are suspected of having been called for help on fifteen occasions and of not having come to the aid of the migrants on the night of the shipwreck.

Asked by AFP, the director of the Cross Gris-Nez, in charge of rescue in the Channel, did not wish to react.

"All operators currently at the Cross Gris-Nez or embarked have all the confidence of the prefect to conduct rescue operations at sea," the maritime prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea told AFP.

"We can only rejoice that things are moving forward from a criminal point of view, that we finally shed light on this case, that the word of the victims or the relatives of the victims can finally be heard at a judicial level," said Flore Judet, spokesperson for Utopia 56, an association that helps migrants.

"Help, please"

The boat sank in the early morning hours of November 24, 2021, leading to the death of 27 passengers, mostly Iraqi Kurds, aged between 7 and 46. No one came to their aid. Neither on the French nor on the British side, each spending the night passing the buck, according to documents of the investigation consulted by AFP and revealed by Le Monde in November.

In a telephone conversation with the Cross, seen by AFP, a migrant said: "Help, please (...), I am in the water." "Yes, but you are in English waters, sir," replied his interlocutor. "No, no, not English waters, French waters, please, can you come quickly," he pleaded again, before the conversation was cut off.

"Oh bah, you don't hear, you won't be saved. ' I have my feet in the water', well I didn't ask you to leave," said the operator.

These elements, which agree with the statements of the two survivors, had shaken the Cross Gris-Nez when they were revealed, but also aroused the "consternation" of migrant aid associations.

Transcripts of conversations show, however, that the Cross contacted the British coastguard on several occasions. "We are in our heads very divided, at the same time we were very shocked to learn what could be said at the time when people were dying and at the same time (...) these people of the Cross are so solicited and do such a great job, that we would not have filed a complaint, "said AFP Claire Millot of the association Salam.

Ten alleged smugglers, mostly Afghans, have already been indicted in the judicial investigation.

An investigation is also underway across the Channel. The British authorities announced at the end of November that they had arrested a man, "suspected of being a member of the organised criminal group that conspired to transport the migrants to the UK aboard a small boat".

This tragedy had increased the tension between Paris and London. But without discouraging candidates for England. Some 46,000 asylum seekers crossed the Channel in 2022, mostly Afghans, Iranians and Albanians. Some 8,000 were rescued in French waters.

With AFP

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