Twenty-seven migrants spent a day at sea holding on to buoys around a giant tuna net as the Maltese and Libyan governments argued over who should save them from drowning.
They were picked up eventually by an Italian patrol vessel. The men – Africans of various nationalities – had paid for a passage from Libya to Europe in an open boat that foundered on Friday night.
Soon after their boat went down they were spotted by the Maltese tug Boudafel, which was towing a huge tuna-breeding plant towards Spain.
The men said that the tug threw them a line and began towing them, ahead of the plant. When their boat sank the men grabbed the steel cable connecting the breeder to the tug and worked their way on to buoys that formed a floating circle, about 60 yards across, supporting the system of nets below the surface.
The tug was ordered by her owners not to take the men on board because that would have interrupted her voyage.
The men were transferred after 24 hours to the Italian naval vessel Orione, which was in the area searching for another boatload of migrants that had become known as the “phantom boat”.
She was an open boat, crammed with 53 men, women and children, sighted and photographed from the air last Monday about 90 miles (145km) south of Malta. Her engine had stopped and it looked as if she was in difficulty, but contact was lost.