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NATO, others missed chance to save migrants fleeing Libya

March 29, 2012 | 12:24 pm

Distress calls from a ship fleeing Libya last March weren’t heeded by NATO and other coast guards in the area, leading to dozens of deaths, a European watchdog group said in a report released Thursday.

Tens of thousands of people fled Libya to escape fighting and food shortages as the country was attacked by NATO, many of them workers from sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt and Bangladesh. At least 1,500 people are believed to have lost their lives last year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

In one widely reported case, 62 out of the 73 migrants on board a small rubber boat fleeing Tripoli died, including two babies. Left to drift, the boat landed back in Libya two weeks later with few survivors.

What made this tragedy especially striking was that the distress calls seem to have been ignored -- an alarming sign that the deaths could have been avoided, a Council of Europe committee said.

"Many opportunities to save the lives of the people on board the boat were lost," the report found.

NATO officials denied the allegation that they refused to aid the migrants, saying their group had rescued hundreds of people in the Mediterranean. “We have no record of any NATO aircraft or ship having seen or made contact with this particular boat,” spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told the Associated Press.

The Council of Europe committee report gives a harrowing account of what happened to the stricken boat, which was low on fuel and food. A few hours after the boat first sent out a call of distress, an unidentified military helicopter dropped water and biscuits and indicated that it would come back, according to the report. It never did.

Two fishing vessels were also seen, neither of which came to its assistance, the report said. Another large vessel sailed near the boat, only to sail away. Short on food and water, people began to perish.

The committee also said it had a reliable report that two vessels, one under NATO command and one from Italy involved in NATO operations, were within 37 miles or less of the stricken boat, close enough to receive its calls of distress.

The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center got the distress call and sent calls to ships in the area to look for the boat, but didn’t ensure that the passengers were rescued, the report said. A Malta rescue center was also aware of the distress calls, but didn’t launch a search-and-rescue operation either.

The report also laid blame with the smugglers for overloading the boat and failing to carry enough food and the Libyan authorities for “a de facto expulsion” of the migrants. Under the late Moammar Kadafi, Libya had been repeatedly criticized by human rights groups for abuse and mistreatment of migrants.

Last year, the United Nations said it had received reports that refugees were being forced onto boats at gunpoint by Libyan soldiers, an accusation also made by a rebel spokesman in Benghazi, The Times reported.

A coalition of human rights groups recently asked NATO and its member states to shed more light on the deaths at sea, asking for more information on what presence and capacity they had in the area. Western powers had warships patrolling the area to enforce an arms embargo against Libya, Human Rights Watch said. As of Monday, it had received no response to a request last July about the incident.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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