Written by Associated Press (AP)
An EU rights group has accused NATO and Western coast guards of failing to aid a boatload of migrants adrift in the Mediterranean during the campaign against Libya. Only nine of 72 people on board the vessel survived after it drifted in open seas for two weeks when its engine failed, said a report by a Council of Europe committee. NATO, whose warships and maritime aircraft were patrolling the area, enforcing an arms embargo against Libya, rejected the accusations. Tens of thousands of people fled Libya to neighbouring countries during the war, many of them aboard rickety boats heading for Malta and Italy. They included a large number of Africans who had either lived and worked in Libya or were waiting for an illegal crossing to Europe. “NATO failed to react to the distress calls, even though there were military vessels under its control in the boat’s vicinity when the distress call was sent,” the report, published today, said.
The report said that a helicopter dropped biscuits and water to the migrants but never returned, while a large military vessel came into close contact with the boat but ignored obvious distress signals. The migrants eventually drifted back to Libya, but not before most of those aboard died of exposure or thirst.
The alliance rejected the accusations, saying its ships and aircraft assisted in the rescue of over 600 people, and helped co-ordinate the rescue of many others. “To help determine what happened, NATO provided a significant amount of information to the Council of Europe,” spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said. “We have no record of any NATO aircraft or ship having seen or made contact with this particular boat.”
The report also accused Italy and Malta of failing to launch search and rescue operations although their rescue co-ordination centres had pinpointed the position of the stricken vessel. “No one went to the aid of this boat,” the report said. The report, which took nine months to compile, recommended a review of all search and rescue procedures in the Mediterranean. It also called on Nato to launch an inquiry into the incident.
Other human rights groups have also criticised the failure to rescue the boat’s passengers, who were from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ghana and Sudan. Amnesty International said it “expressed its disquiet that [the inquiry] has yet to receive satisfactory replies from key players, including NATO, countries involved in NATO operations, and European Union institutions.”
“Everyone involved in this tragic incident must cooperate fully with this investigation,” said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty’s Brussels office. “Whoever is responsible must be held to account.”