/ 9 May 2011

Nato: We did not leave migrants to die

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) has denied a report that one of its aircraft carriers left 61 migrants to die in the sea after they fled the conflict in Libya.

The Guardian newspaper in Britain reported that a boat carrying 72 migrants had left Tripoli on its way to Italy on March 25 but was left drifting for 16 days after a number of European and Nato military units apparently ignored pleas for help.

During the ordeal, the boat made contact with a military helicopter from an unknown nation and later, around March 29 or 30, was carried close to an aircraft carrier, the newspaper said, citing survivors.

A rescue never materialised, however, and the ship, out of fuel, eventually washed up on western Libyan beach on April 10, the Guardian said. Only 11 people survived — the rest had died of thirst and starvation at sea.

The newspaper said the aircraft carrier was likely France’s Charles de Gaulle.

Nato said only one aircraft carrier was under its command at the time, Italy’s Garibaldi, which was operating 100 nautical miles out to sea.

“Any claims that a Nato aircraft carrier spotted and then ignored the vessel in distress are wrong,” said Nato’s deputy spokesperson Carmen Romero.

Alliance vessels were “fully aware” of the responsibilities under maritime laws and helped to rescue about 500 people near Tripoli who were later transferred to Italy in late March, she said.

“The Nato units involved saw and heard no trace of any other vessels in the area where safety of life at sea was threatened,” Romero said.

The Guardian said the boat was carrying 47 Ethiopians, seven Nigerians, seven Eritreans, six Ghanaians and five Sudanese migrants.

Thousands of people fleeing upheavals in Tunisia and Libya have undertaken the perilous voyage to Italy’s island of Lampedusa in the past several weeks.

Nato warships began to enforce an arms embargo off Libya’s coast on March 23 to prevent Muammar Gaddafi’s regime from shipping in weapons and mercenaries.

Alliance combat jets taking off from aircraft carriers and land bases are also conducting air strikes against regime forces threatening cities and civilians. — AFP