France charges five soldiers over 2021 Channel migrants tragedy
French judges have charged five soldiers over the deaths of 27 migrants who sank while trying to cross the Channel in a small boat in November 2021.
The soldiers are among nine people held in custody in the probe into the tragedy. A judicial source said they are accused of failing to help the boat.
AFP news agency reported that those charged included three women and two men on duty at the Channel rescue centre at the time.
The sinking was the worst disaster on record involving migrants in the narrow seaway separating Britain from mainland Europe. The migrants were mostly Iraqi Kurds, and aged seven to 46.
The small craft sank shortly after leaving the French coast, leading to the death of all but two of those onboard – comprising men, women and children.
Le Monde newspaper previously reported that passengers had first contacted officials in France’s Channel rescue centre at 01:48, saying their boat was deflating and their engine had failed.
The group reportedly sent their location by WhatsApp 15 minutes later, but authorities failed to answer. Rescue teams eventually responded 10 hours later, after fishermen raised the alarm.
In the wake of the accident, France and Britain traded blame. A French migrant charity filed a complaint shortly after the tragedy.
AFP reported that among those in custody, some are soldiers from the French rescue service Cross Gris Nez, in charge of rescues in the Channel.
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Speaking at the time of the tragedy, the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the disaster was the biggest single loss of life in the Channel since it had begun collecting data in 2014.
The UK’s then-Prime Minster Boris Johnson said he was “appalled” by the incident, adding that his country would leave “no stone unturned” to stop human trafficking gangs.
In November 2022, a 32-year-old man appeared in a London court in connection with the disaster, having been accused of being part of a group which conspired to transport the migrants to the UK.
Harem Ahmed Abwbaker was alleged to have offered money to the families of migrants who drowned to stay silent.
Last June, French police arrested 15 people – mostly from Afghanistan – who are accused of being part of a smuggling ring involved in the deadly incident.