Council of Europe finds NATO responsible for deaths of 63 Libyan refugees

Only 9 of the refugees who attempted to flee survived.

At least 1500 people are known to have lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2011,  many of them fleeing from the conflict in Libya.

On Thursday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons adopted a report  that focuses on the deaths of 63 whose cries for help were ignored by ships and helicopters in a military zone under NATO control.

The incident was first reported by the UK Guardian on May 8, 2011:

"A boat carrying 72 passengers, including several women, young 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 warship, no rescue effort was attempted."

Human Rights Watch continues to call for cooperation from NATO and its member nations:

"In July 2011, Human Rights Watch sent letters to NATO and the defense ministers of France, Italy, Malta and the United States inquiring about the incident.  To date no response has been received."

PACE committee finds a 'catalogue of failures' that

led to deaths of 63 people fleeing Libyan conflict by sea

Strasbourg, 29.03.2012 – A failure to react to distress calls and a “vacuum of responsibility” for search and rescue are among a “catalogue of failures” which led to the deaths of 63 people fleeing the conflict in Libya by sea during a tragic 15-day voyage in March 2011, according to a committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

A report by Tineke Strik (Netherlands, SOC), adopted this morning in Brussels by PACE’s Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, says Italian search and rescue authorities, NATO, the flag states of naval vessels in the area, the Libyan authorities and reckless smugglers are among those who share responsibility.

The boat, which left Tripoli with 72 people on board a week after the beginning of international air strikes on Libya, washed up on the Libyan coast 15 days later with only nine people still alive – even though distress messages giving its last known position were regularly broadcast to all ships in the area.

NATO “failed to react to distress calls” in a military zone under its control, the committee says, pointing out that the Spanish Navy frigate Méndez Núñez, under NATO command, was reported to be only 11 miles away, although the Spanish authorities dispute the distance. An Italian military vessel, the Borsini, was 37 nautical miles away. Both vessels can carry a helicopter.

The committee says it finds “credible” the testimonies of the nine survivors of the incident, who said that a military helicopter dropped water and biscuits to them and indicated it would return, but never did. On the tenth day of the voyage – with half the passengers dead – they said “a large military vessel” approached, close enough for them to see crew with binoculars, but sailed away without effecting a rescue.

“Many opportunities of saving the lives of the persons on board were lost,” the committee concludes. It demands that NATO conduct an inquiry into the incident and provide comprehensive answers to outstanding questions, and calls on the European Parliament to seek further information, including satellite imagery. National parliaments of the states concerned should also carry out inquiries. There should also be an overhaul of maritime regulations to fill the “vacuum of responsibility” when a state cannot carry out search and rescue in its assigned zone, and to deal with the dispute between Italy and Malta over which country should be responsible for disembarkation of those rescued at sea.

The report is due to be debated at the April plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly, probably on Tuesday 24 April.

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