NATO Denies Ignoring Pleas for Help from Migrant Boat

A harrowing Guardian report is being denied by European military officials

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NATO has denied leaving "61 African migrants to die of hunger and thirst," as Sunday's Guardian headline alleged. The Guardian's Jack Shenker had written from the Italian island of Lampedusa, where over 400 migrants arrived via a crash boat landing on Sunday, that a "boat of 72 migrants which set sail from Tripoli on 25 March" were "condemned to death by a combination of bad luck, bureaucracy and the apparent indifference of European military forces who had the opportunity to attempt a rescue" the vessel, full of Ethiopians, Nigerians, Eritreans, Ghanaians, and Sudanese, "used the boat's satellite phone to call [Eritrean priest Moses] Zerai in Rome, who in turn contacted the Italian coastguard," which determined the boat's location "down to about 60 miles off Tripoli." Though a military helicopter soon arrived to "[lower] bottles of water and packets of biscuits" and indicate "to passengers that they should hold their position until a rescue boat came to help," no help was forthcoming.

According to the account given to the Guardian, as the supplies were exhausted, the migrants died one by one, and one point passing "so close" to a NATO aircraft carrier "that it would have been impossible to be missed," but receiving no help. "On 10 April, the boat washed up on a beach near the Libyan town of Zlitan near Misrata. Of the 72 migrants who had embarked at Tripoli, only 11 were still alive," one dying shortly after landfall and another dying while detained by Qaddafi's forces, who held all of the survivors in prison for four days.

The Guardian's report contained no outside corroboration of the migrants' accounts. But it did say, "The Guardian has made extensive inquiries to ascertain the identity of the Nato aircraft carrier, and has concluded that it is likely to have been the French ship Charles de Gaulle, which was operating in the Mediterranean on those dates."

Today Reuters reported NATO's response, denying that the vessel was located and then ignored: "NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said only one aircraft carrier was under NATO command during the period, the Italian ship Garibaldi, and that was operating 100 nautical miles out to sea." The French have said that their aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle never came into contact with the boat. As of yet, there does not appear to be a followup story from the Guardian.

The Reuters report also points out that "dozens of immigrants from north Africa have died attempting to reach Italian shores," and Italian ships "answered a distress signal and managed to save 50 people in Maltese waters" back on April 6.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.