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23rd Jun 2018

Nato among those accused of letting migrants die at sea

  • Libya refugees in Italy. A CoE report claims Nato and EU inaction caused 63 deaths in March 2011 (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Confusion, denial and ignored distress signals by Nato, warships and two fishing boats led to the death of 63 migrants (including children) on a boat which tried to cross the Mediterranean last year, according to a scathing report by the Council of Europe (CoE).

"Some began to hallucinate and jumped into the sea. People started dying slowly," Tineke Strik, who drafted the CoE paper after a nine-month inquiry, told press in Brussels on Thursday (29 March). Her findings are based on separate interviews with four of the nine survivors - who have not seen each other since the incident took place, but whose stories matched.

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A small blue rubber boat carrying 72 people set sail from Tripoli shortly after midnight on 26 March 2011.

Most were sub-Saharan Africans - Eritreans and Somalians fleeing a Libya gripped by civil war. Just before they set off, people smugglers dumped some of their food and water to squeeze in yet more bodies.

Fifteen days later, the boat washed up again on the Libyan shore. Just nine young men were still alive, despite the fact the boat had previously been spotted by a military helicopter, a military vessel, an airplane, and two fishing boats in a zone under Nato control - the Strik report alleges.

The captain - possibly a smuggler himself - had called an Eritrean priest in Italy by satellite phone 18 hours into the trip. He said they were low on fuel and getting into trouble.

The Italian coastguard was informed and the boat's position was later fixed by the Rome Maritime Rescue and Co-ordination Centre (MRCC). The MRCC sent several distress messages to all ships in the area, at one point adding "assist if possible." It also informed Nato command in Naples that the boat was in difficulty. It repeated the SOS every four hours for 10 days to all ships.

A Nato spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, said on Thursday that Nato transmitted the information to ships under its control, but added that she has "no record of any Nato aircraft or ship having seen or made contact with this particular boat."

The CoE report flatly contradicts this claiming that a Spanish frigate, under Nato command, was only 11 nautical miles away.

Survivors told Tineke that two hours after the satellite phone call, a military helicopter hovered overhead and signaled the boat to stay put. They described the chopper as small, grey or green, with possibly the word 'Army' written across it.

Hopes were raised for a rescue. But fearing arrest, the 'captain' tossed his special phone and his compass overboard. The helicopter returned a few hours later, dropped biscuits and bottles of water and left.

Both the US and UK had choppers in the Mediterranean at the time but have refused to provide information to the CoE concerning their location.

Some 18 hours into the voyage, a French aircraft is also said to have spotted and photographed the boat.

Meanwhile, between day three and day six, people began to die.

The survivors said that at one point, they also saw a fishing boat with an Italian flag and almost get entangled in its nets. But the fishing boat pulled away and left them stranded without fuel or water.

Strik's interviewees added that on day 10 a large military vessel approached their boat. There was a helicopter was on board and maybe fighter jets.

"Some [of the naval officers] were looking through binoculars and others were taking pictures of us. We held up dead babies ... and also the empty fuel tanks," Ghirma Haleform - an Eritrean survivor - told the CoE investigator. Ghirma said the ship was off-white or grey in colour.

By this point, half the boat's passengers were already dead. Those still alive shouted for help but the military vessel turned around and vanished into the distance.

The CoE report says that: "According to a reliable source, at least two military vessels involved in Nato's operations were in the boat's vicinity when the distress call was sent, namely the Spanish Navy frigate Mendez Nunez and an Italian vessel, the ITS Borsini ... [but they] failed to act in accordance with their search and rescue operations."

For its part, Spain's ministry of defence says it did not get the SOS and that the Mendez Nunez was nowhere near the area.

Strik asked the European External Action Service (EEAS) back in November to release satellite images in its possession which pinpoint the position of military vessels at the time of the events.

"We asked [EEAS chief] Ashton for the satellite images of the vessels but waited a long time for a response, later only to say that they had handed it all to Nato. Nato refused to provide us with the data," Strik said.

Despite the gravity of the allegations, she noted that Ashton's refusal letter came on 19 March 2012, some five months after her appeal.

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