Rome: The crew of a speedboat labelled "Libyan Coast Guard" attacked a migrant boat packed with some 150 migrants, beating them with sticks and causing many to fall into the water and at least four to drown, a humanitarian group said on Friday.
The Germany-based Sea-Watch group, which is one of several non-governmental organisations operating vessels off the coast of Libya, said the speedboat swooped in just as they were about to go to the aid of the overcrowded rubber boat.
"The violent intervention of the Libyan Coast Guard caused a situation of mass panic on board the rubber boat in distress," Sea-Watch said in a statement. "One tube of the rubber boat collapsed, causing the majority of the 150 people to slip into the water."
The Sea-Watch crew recovered four bodies, spokesman Ruben Neugebauer told Reuters, and was still conducting rescues.
About 120 others were brought safely onto the Sea-Watch 2 ship, while four were unconscious and receiving treatment. Italy's coast guard said there were nine rescue operations underway on Friday, and that Sea-Watch was involved.
A spokesman for Libya's naval forces in Tripoli said he had not heard about the incident. Italy's coast guard and a spokesman for the EU's anti-smuggling operation Sophia also said they had no information about the attack.
Italy has taken in more than 146,000 boat migrants so far this year and is on track to see more arrivals than last year, when 153,000 arrived. Since Sunday, some 2,200 have been rescued.
It was not immediately clear if the incident would affect the planned start of training next week of up to 100 Libyan coast guard members as part of the EU mission Operation Sophia. The spokesman for Sophia had no immediate comment.
The US military, which also operates ships in the region, had no immediate comment on the incident.
"Next week training starts with the Libyan coast guard," Neugebauer said. "We think it's quite important to think about with whom we are collaborating."
According to information the German government has provided to parliament, the first set of training is to take place on two ships - one Italian and one Dutch off the coast of Libya, with equipment and trainers provided by Germany, Italy, Greece, Belgium and Britain.
The Libyan coast guard currently has three boats in Tripoli, three boats in Misrata and two boats in Zuwarah, according to the German government report. The German military said it had no information about the incident.
In August, another humanitarian group that operates rescue ships off the coast of Libya, Doctors Without Borders, said it had been attacked and boarded by armed men on a Libyan navy boat. The Libyan navy said it fired "warning shots" because it thought the vessel was involved in people smuggling.