Friday, 20 May 2011

Did NATO ships leave dozens of Africans to die of starvation at sea?

"Everyone was either praying or dying"

Earlier this month, NATO denied claims by the British newspaper ‘The Guardian’ that its navy left scores of migrants fleeing Libyan violence aboard a disabled boat in the Mediterranean to die of starvation. The story has created a furore in Europe, with critics alleging that NATO’s lethargic bureaucracy and indifference are responsible for 61 deaths at sea.

"Every morning we would wake up and find more bodies, which we would leave for 24 hours and then throw overboard," Abu Kurke, an Ethiopian survivor, told the Guardian. "Everyone was either praying or dying."

The Guardian says that 62 Africans died out of a total of 72 men, women and children in the boat that drifted for 16 days in late March and early April this year. The refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Sudan had earlier received some food and water from a helicopter after its Ghanaian Captain called a refugee organisation in Rome, but that soon ran out. The organisation had informed the Italian coast guard about the refugees’ plight; the report alleges that nothing was done despite the helicopter indicating to the refugees that help was on its way. Contact was lost with the boat after the satellite phone battery ran out.

Out of fuel and drifting many days later, survivors say that two aircraft were seen approaching from a nearby warship that the Guardian believes was the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. The refugees held up two babies in a vain attempt to indicate their distress as the aircraft flew low over them, but the pilots flew away.

Running out of food, the migrants started dying until just ten were left. Included were the parents of the two infants- the children died later. One survivor died soon after the boat eventually docked back in Zlitan, near Misratah, Libya, on April 10. Kurke says he survived by drinking his own urine and eating toothpaste.

The violence in Libya has created huge additional dangers for economic migrants from Africa, an estimated 30,000 of who are said to have made the voyage this year from Libya or Tunisia after paying smugglers up to 3000 US dollars apiece. For years, the Libyan government allowed the country to be used as a launch for refugees fleeing to Europe- usually Italy- across the Mediterranean. UN officials say that about 800 migrants from Africa have already died at sea. A boat carrying 600 desperate migrants capsized off the Libyan coast last week; only 400 were rescued. Two other boats with hundreds of passengers each have disappeared in recent weeks, and 250 died on April 6 when their boat sank off the island.

NATO has denied the Guardian’s claims with regard to this latest tragedy. NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero told reporters in Brussels, "NATO vessels are fully aware of their responsibilities with regard to international maritime law on safety of lives at sea." The French claimed at first that the ‘Charles de Gaulle had’ was not in the area, but then refused comment when the Guardian produced documents that showed that the ship had indeed been there.

Many are appalled at this latest incident, because survivors claim that NATO aircraft spotted them on two different occasions and ignored them. Moses Zerai, the Rome-based priest called by the boat’s Captain says, "This crime cannot go unpunished just because the victims were African migrants and not tourists on a cruise liner."

Refugee rights campaigners have demanded an investigation into the deaths. UNHCR, United Nation's refugee agency, has asked for more cooperation between commercial and military vessels in the Mediterranean. “The Mediterranean cannot become the wild west,” said spokeswoman Laura Boldrini. “Those who do not rescue people at sea cannot remain unpunished.”


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