Report: 61 died on boat; pleas ignored

May 9, 2011 at 12:20 AM
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ROME, May 8 (UPI) -- Sixty-one migrants died on a broken-down boat in the Mediterranean Sea while military authorities ignored their pleas for help, The Guardian reported Sunday.

The British newspaper said the migrants died of hunger and thirst before their vessel finally reached shore April 10 back in Libya where they had started. Just 11 passengers survived, and two of those died soon after.

The boat had drifted for 16 days, the report said.

The Guardian said the boat, bound from Tripoli to the Italian island of Lampedusa, carried 47 Ethiopians, seven Nigerians, seven Eritreans, six Ghanaians and five Sudanese migrants. Twenty were women and two were small children.

The Guardian said it had learned the boat had made contact with a military helicopter that dropped the migrants water and biscuits but never sent further aid. They also failed to get the attention of a NATO warship the boat drifted past. The Italian coast guard was alerted to the boat's predicament but it did the migrants no good, the newspaper said.

"Every morning we would wake up and find more bodies, which we would leave for 24 hours and then throw overboard," said Abu Kurke, one of the survivors. "By the final days, we didn't know ourselves … everyone was either praying, or dying."

Refugee rights activists have demanded an investigation and the United Nations' refugee agency has called for more cooperation between commercial and naval vessels in the Mediterranean.

"The Mediterranean cannot become the Wild West," spokeswoman Laura Boldrini said. "Those who do not rescue people at sea cannot remain unpunished."

A spokesman for the Italian coast guard said notice was sent to Malta and to vessels in the region to look for the boat and rescue the passengers. Maltese authorities say they had no knowledge of a boat in distress.

The Guardian said its investigation led it to conclude the aircraft carrier the survivors said they approached March 29 or 30 was likely the French ship Charles de Gaulle.

The newspaper said a French naval representative declined comment.

A NATO spokesman coordinating military action in Libya said no distress signals had been received from the boat.

The migrants were among up to 30,000 refugees who have fled turmoil in North Africa in just the past four months. Several hundred are believed to have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

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