A European "far-right", anti-immigration group has chartered a huge ship to disrupt search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean, in what critics warn is a "dangerous new development on our high seas".
The anti-Islam "Identitarian" movement – described as Europe's answer to the American alt-right – crowd-funded more than €65,000 to hire the 30-person ship, which it wants to use to "defend" European and Western identity.
Adopting a yellow lambda used by the Spartan army as their insignia, the group's activists are expected to sail the former research vessel to the Mediterranean next month and base themselves off the coast of Libya.
There, they have vowed to "chase down the enemies of Europe" by disrupting the activities of non-governmental organisation (NGO) rescue ships, which they blame for propelling the migrant crisis by providing safe passage to the continent.
Their new vessel even has the capacity to launch several rigid inflatable boats, increasing the reach of their crew.
"Our presence in front of the Libyan coast is needed to save Europe and to save lives," the group claims on its website.
"Every week, every day, every hour – ships packed with illegal immigrants are flooding into European waters. An invasion is taking place.
"Our goal is to document the doings of the NGOs, expose their collaboration with the human smugglers, and intervene if they do something illegal.
"We will reach out to the Libyan Coast Guard and offer them our help as a recon ship. Our goal is to step in where our politicians are failing and to do what is necessary to stop the deadly illegal migration into Europe."
The group – branded "far right" by its critics – also promised to abide by maritime law and rescue any migrants who release an SOS distress call, returning them to the coast of north Africa.
The Identitarian movement, mostly run by twentysomething activists, started in France in 2002 with the launch of Génération Identitaire, the youth wing of the nationalist Bloc Identitaire.
Their ship is a major upgrade from the small motorboat three of its activists successfully used last month to disrupt a search-and-rescue vessel as it left the Sicilian port of Catania.
They boasted of having slowed the MV Aquarius – run by the charity SOS Méditerranée – on 12 May, which is one of a number of NGO ships credited with having saved huge numbers of refugees from drowning.
More than 5,000 migrants died while trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
NGOs say their rescue ships are essential to prevent even more drownings and have expressed their frustrations at the actions of groups like the Identitarians.
Researchers at Hope Not Hate, one of the UK's largest anti-extremism charities, have been tracking the Identitarian movement closely for the past month and described their stunts as "dangerous".
They accused its activists of chartering the ship not to save lives but to "deliberately stir things up to gain attention and thus further funds and support".
A spokesperson told IBTimes UK: "This is not the way to solve or address the refugee crisis on the Mediterranean. The Identitarians' actions, and those of their supporters in attempting to identify and potentially specifically target NGOs and their workers, poses a risk that authorities should not ignore.
"Not only that, but the Identitarians potentially put themselves in danger if, as they claim, they will sail near the Libyan coast line and near to armed people smugglers."
Nick Lowles, chief executive of Hope Not Hate, added: "While the Identitarian movement has always used controversial and confrontational tactics the hiring of this ship is emblematic of a dangerous new confidence within the movement.
"The project also reveals an increasingly international threat, with key activists coming from across Europe while support, including financial, has flooded in from around the world.
"We will be monitoring the ship's movements very closely and liaising with NGOs and supporters over the coming months to ensure the relevant authorities are aware of the situation. We will forge a coalition of progressive organisations to oppose this dangerous new development on our high seas."