Updated 12.40pm

By 1.48pm, Mohammed Jammo was on the verge of despair. 

"We are dying, please! Don't abandon us! We have no captain, he ran away. I have no credit on my phone, please help," he pleaded with an official at Italy's rescue coordination centre in Rome. 

By that time, Mr Jammo - a self-described Syrian doctor - and the hundreds of men, women and children aboard the rickety boat some 60 nautical miles south of Lampedusa had been waiting more than an hour for help to arrive. 

The reply from Rome was chilling. "Yes, yes. You have to call Malta. You have to call Malta." 

It would take a further four hours for a rescue vessel to make it to their position, despite an Italian warship being situated just an hour-and-a-half away. By then, Mr Jammo and the boat's other passengers were in the water. Hundreds were dead. 

Audio recordings released by Italian news outlet L'Espresso yesterday retell the horrific afternoon hours of October 11, 2013, when the Mediterranean claimed the lives of more than 250 people, among them 60 children. 

The recordings suggest Italian maritime rescue officials brushed off pleas to rescue the hundreds aboard the boat, repeatedly telling Mr Jammo he had to ask Malta for help and insisting with Maltese officials that the warship in the vicinity could not help because its job was to "spot new targets." 

Rome received the first call at 12.39pm that afternoon. 

The reply from Rome was chilling. "Yes, yes. You have to call Malta. You have to call Malta.

"Please hurry, please hurry. The boat is going down. I swear to you, there is half a metre of water in the boat," Mr Jammo pleads.  

Almost an hour later, at 1.17pm, Mr Jammo calls again, only to be told that he has to call Malta "because you are near Malta."  

"Please go, go. Call Malta directly, very quickly, they are there, very close, ok? Please go, go," the Italian official tells the desperate doctor before hanging up.

The sinking boat was around 10 and 19 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, with Lampedusa 61 nautical miles north. Malta was almost twice as distant - some 118 nautical miles away. 

'Please hurry, please hurry. We are dying': a man aboard the boat pleaded in vain. This is a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi'Please hurry, please hurry. We are dying': a man aboard the boat pleaded in vain. This is a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi

"I called Malta. I gave them our position and you are closer," the Syrian man says when he calls back 30 minutes later. 

"We are dying, please! We have no captain, he ran away. I have no credit on my phone, please help."

The pleas fall on deaf ears. "Yes, you have to call Malta. You have to call Malta." 

At 4.44pm - more than three hours after the initial plea for help - Italian officials call their Maltese counterparts to discuss a fax sent by AFM officials asking Italy to rescue the people at sea.

The Italian official says their nearby warship could not be sent to rescue the drowning people because its task was "to spot new targets."

"I do not think this is the best way to operate, because after we don't have assets in the area to spot new targets," the Italian official tells his Maltese counterpart. 

The Maltese official keeps her cool.

"The [Italian] boat is the closest one, do you understand? We have a plane in the area and it spotted the vessel. If you can't send your ship we'll have to see what we have to do. We've also told a civilian ship to try and go to the area but it's some 70 nautical miles away."

At 5.07pm - less than 20 minutes after that exchange - Malta's operations centre calls Rome to inform Italian officials that the boat has capsized and that the roughly 250 people on board are in the water. 

"Ok. Is it the same boat?" comes the monotone reply. "I have passed instructions to our Mare Libra [boat]."

Almost five hours have passed since the initial SOS call. Hundreds lose their lives as a result of the dithering. Ultimately, Malta rescued 147 people, with Italy picking up 39.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both Malta and Italy have ratified, explicitly requires signatory states to require ship captains to "proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may be reasonably expected of him."

Malta's role

The recordings published by L'Espresso paint a horrific picture of bureaucratic wrangling and indifference costing people their life.

But the audio files do not explain why it was Italy which sent out the worldwide distress call, when the capsizing boat was drifting in Malta's search and rescue area. Under international law, countries are responsible for coordinating all rescue operations taking place in their SAR area.

Nor do they explain the hours-long delay in an AFM plane being dispatched to the area, despite Mr Jammo having already made a distress call, or the hour-long gap - from 4 to 5pm - between the time an AFM plane sighted the distressed vessel and reports of it having capsized at 5.07pm. No rescue vessels were dispatched during that time.

In a report published 11 months after the event, Amnesty International said it was "reasonable to question" whether Italy and Malta had acted promptly and done all they could to avert the tragedy.

At the time, Maltese Home Affairs officials said the sequence of events showed that AFM officials had "acted in a highly professional manner" and that it was thanks to their work that people were rescued.

The recordings released by L'Espresso appear to confirm that retelling of events, although it must be noted that Maltese authorities have never released call logs relating to the incident and have never explained why a rescue operation took so long to get underway.

It was lunchtime when Mr Jammo first dialled in a rescue call. By the time a rescue vessel reached them, night was falling. It was only once Mr Jammo and others were in the cold open sea that authorities cranked rescue operations into gear.

Almost four years have passed since that October afternoon. Italian officials have yet to conclude investigations into the case.

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