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12th Apr 2021

UK experts blame Nato for Libya refugee tragedy

A detailed 90-page forensic report by Goldsmiths, the University of London released on Wednesday (11 April) says Nato contributed to the deaths of 63 refugees in one boat of 72 fleeing Libya by attempting to cross the Mediterranean last year.

The study also links a British military helicopter and a French warship to the tragedy.

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  • Experts used forensic oceanography to trace the exact movements of the dinghy (Photo: Wikipedia)

Four of the nine survivors have testified that 18 hours into the journey a military helicopter hovered overhead.

Thinking they would be rescued, the captain - suspected of being a smuggler - threw his sat phone overboard. The small chopper returned a few hours later and dropped water and biscuits. Survivors said it had the word "Army" or possibly "Rescue Army" written across it and was either grey or green in colour.

Experts at Goldsmiths used forensic oceanography technology to trace the exact location and movements of the inflatable rubber dinghy.

They say the chopper described by the survivors was most likely a British Westland Lynx helicopter, known to operate in the area during the conflict. But Britain's defence ministry denies that any of its helicopters made contact with the boat.

The new report also says that a warship which came in contact with the dinghy was most likely French. Survivors said they could see people in military uniforms on the vessel looking at them through binoculars and taking photos.

"At first the ship was very far. Maybe 700 metres. They then circled around us, three times, until they came very close, 10 metres. We were watching them, and they were watching us. We are showing them the dead bodies. We drank water from the sea to show them we are thirsty. The people on boat took pictures, nothing else," said Dain Haile Gerbre, a survivor who was later granted asylum in Italy.

The dingy also came in contact with two fishing boats, who did nothing to help.

Despite being spotted by the various boats and helicopters, it washed back up on the Libyan shore some 160km east of Tripoli 14 days later.

Eleven people had survived, but one died while arriving on shore. Another person died later of exhaustion and from lack of proper medical treatment by Libyan authorities.

The boat left Libya sometime after midnight on 26 March 2011 and made distress call 18 hours into its journey. Their call for help was picked up by the Italian Coastguard and passed onto Nato Command Naples a few hours later.

Nato denies that any of its ships or military vessels were near the boat despite having declared the region a military zone under its control.

The Council of Europe (CoE), the Strasbourg-based human rights watchdog, in a separate report last month also said that two Nato warships were most likely in the boat's vicinity.

Despite requests, Nato has not released to the CoE the data that reveals the exact locations of its ships around the time of incident.

The Goldsmith report says some 38 naval assets were in operation in waters off the coast of Libya between 27 March and 10 April.

"Combing the analysis of synthetic aperture radar data, we were able to demonstrate that between the 28 and 29 March 2011 a large number of ships were located in the area, some of which were at distance of between 20 and 38 nautical miles to the migrant's boat," it said.

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