63 refugees left to die at sea after Nato aircraft carrier fails to respond
JACK SHENKER in Lampedusa
DOZENS OF African migrants were left to die in the Mediterranean Sea after European and Nato military units apparently ignored their cries for help.
A vessel carrying 72 passengers, including several women, children and political refugees, ran into trouble in late March after leaving Tripoli for the Italian island of Lampedusa. Despite alarms being raised with the Italian coastguard and the boat making contact with a military helicopter and a Nato warship, no rescue effort was attempted.
Nearly all of those on board eventually died from thirst and hunger after their vessel was left to drift in open water for 16 days.
“Every morning we would wake up and find more bodies, which we would leave for 24 hours and then throw overboard,” said Abu Kurke, one of only nine survivors. “By the final days, we didn’t know ourselves . . . everyone was either praying or dying.”
International maritime law compels all vessels, including military units, to answer distress calls from nearby boats and to offer help where possible. Refugee rights campaigners have demanded an investigation into the deaths, while UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, has called for stricter co-operation among commercial and military vessels in the Mediterranean in an effort to save lives.
“The Mediterranean cannot become the wild west,” said spokeswoman Laura Boldrini. “Those who do not rescue people at sea cannot remain unpunished.”
Her words were echoed by Fr Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest in Rome who runs the refugee rights organisation Habeshia, and who was one of the last people to be in communication with the migrant boat before the onboard satellite phone ran out of battery.
“There was an abdication of responsibility which led to the deaths of over 60 people, including children,” he claimed. “That constitutes a crime and that crime cannot go unpunished just because the victims were African migrants and not tourists on a cruise liner.”
The vessel, with 72 people on board, set sail from Tripoli on March 25th, carrying 47 Ethiopians, seven Nigerians, seven Eritreans, six Ghanaians and five Sudanese migrants. Twenty were women and two were small children, one of whom was just a year old. The boat’s Ghanaian captain was aiming for the Italian island of Lampedusa, but after 18 hours at sea, the small vessel began running into trouble and losing fuel.
The account from witness testimony, survivors and other individuals who were in contact with the boat’s passengers paints a harrowing picture of a group of increasingly desperate people condemned to death by a combination of bad luck, bureaucracy and the apparent indifference of European military forces who had the opportunity to attempt a rescue.
The migrants initially used the boat’s onboard satellite phone to call Fr Zerai in Rome, who in turn contacted the Italian coast guard.
The boat’s location was narrowed down to about 100km outside of Tripoli; coast guard officials assured Fr Zerai that the alarm had been raised and all relevant authorities had been alerted.
Soon afterwards a military helicopter with the word “army” on its side appeared above the boat. The pilots, who were wearing military uniforms, lowered down bottles of water and packets of biscuits and gestured to passengers that they should hold their position until a rescue boat came to help. The helicopter then flew off, but no rescue boat ever arrived.
No country has yet admitted to sending the helicopter that made contact with the migrants.
A spokesman for the Italian coastguard said: “We advised Malta that the vessel was heading towards their search and rescue zone and we issued an alert telling vessels to look out for the boat, obliging them to attempt a rescue.” The Maltese authorities denied they had any involvement with the boat.
At some point on March 29th or 30th, the boat was carried near to a Nato aircraft carrier – so close that it would have been impossible to be missed.
According to survivors, two jet aircraft took off from the ship and flew low over the boat while the migrants stood on deck and held the two starving babies aloft into the air, but from that point on no help was forthcoming. Unable to manoeuvre any closer to the carrier, the migrants’ boat drifted.
Shorn of supplies, fuel or means of contacting the outside world, they began succumbing to thirst and starvation.
Following extensive enquiries to ascertain the identity of the Nato carrier, the conclusion is that it was likely to have been France’s Charles de Gaulle, which was in the Mediterranean on those dates.
French naval authorities initially denied that the ship was in the region at that time. After being shown news reports which indicated this was untrue, a spokesperson declined to comment.
A spokesman for Nato, which is co-ordinating the military action in Libya, said it had not logged any distress signals from the migrant boat and had no records of the incident.
“Nato ships will answer all distress calls at sea and always provide help when necessary,” an official said. “Saving lives is a priority for any Nato ships.”
For the migrants, the failure of the Nato ship to mount any rescue attempt proved fatal; over the next 10 days almost everyone on board died.
“We saved one bottle of water from the helicopter for the two babies and kept feeding them even after their parents had passed [died],” said Mr Kurke, who survived by drinking his own urine and eating two tubes of toothpaste, “but after two days, the babies passed too,”
On April 10th, the boat washed up on a beach near the Libyan town of Zlitan near Misrata. Of the 72 migrants who had embarked at Tripoli, only 11 were still alive and one of those died almost immediately on reaching land.
Another survivor died shortly afterwards in prison, after Gadafy forces arrested the migrants and detained them for four days. – (Guardian service)
Italy and the Italians, do not forget that unforgetable painfull tears of refugees. Gaddafi is gone Berlusconi is gone. even tomorrow the blood sucker cannibal dictator of eritrea isaias afewerki he will go to hell but the ugly history will remain in the eritreans refugees hearts. we appreciate italy for the ugly treatment. if the killer will forgets, but parents of the dead we will never forget paulos yacob