Did NATO Fail to Help a Ship of Dying Libyan Refugees?

Survivors say a NATO warship ignored distress calls

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Italy demanded on Friday that NATO investigate reports that one of its warships ignored the distress calls of a boat full of migrants escaping from the violence in Libya, the New York Times reports. The boat, which was rescued by three Italian Coast Guard vessels and a helicopter, held 370 people, and survivors say that dozens of migrants, mostly women, had died from dehydration and lack of food during the crossing. They said the bodies were tossed overboard during the week-long voyage. According to the AFP, Mario Testa, a doctor who treated survivors, said the refugees "were left for six days and six nights on the high seas without food or water, forced to look on" as "dozens" died around them.

In response, the Times reports that NATO said in a statement that its maritime command was informed by the Italian authorities of a "distress call of a ship" on Thursday and that the authorities subsequently said they had sent rescuers. They added that "facts of the incident are still emerging." Perhaps conversely, the AFP adds that NATO has also said that it did hear the "distress call but then confirmed that the Italian coast guard had responded." Italian official sources also report that when Italy asked for help from NATO on Thursday, after being alerted to the struck refugees, the NATO vessel had been 27 nautical miles away, according to ANSA.

As more details emerge, the AFP indicates that the problem is more widespread than this specific incident: "Hundreds of refugees - mainly migrant workers from other parts of Africa who were stranded in Libya when the conflict broke out - have drowned or died on board rickety boats in desperate crossings from Libya in recent months." Thus, Italy said it had requested "an internal discussion" on the issue within NATO. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said there was "an obligation to protect desperate civilians put on boats by Gadhafi and sent to die in the Mediterranean."

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