Rights group blasts NATO, others over 63 migrants sea deaths

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A European rights watchdog blasted NATO and other Western coast guards on Thursday for failing to aid a boat of migrants adrift in the Mediterranean Sea during last year's military campaign against Libya.

A report by a Council of Europe committee said only nine of 72 people on board survived after it drifted for two weeks without assistance when its engine failed.

NATO, whose warships and maritime aircraft were patrolling the area at the time to enforce an arms embargo against Libya, rejected the accusations.

Tens of thousands of people fled Libya to neighboring countries in 2011, many of them aboard rickety boats heading for Malta and Italy. They included a large number of Africans who had either lived and worked in Libya or who were waiting for an illegal crossing to Europe.

"NATO failed to react to the distress calls, even though there were military vessels under its control in the boat's vicinity when the distress call was sent," said the report published Thursday.

The report said a helicopter dropped biscuits and water to the migrants but never returned, while a large military vessel came close to the boat but ignored obvious distress signals. The migrants eventually drifted back to Libya, but not before most aboard had died of exposure or thirst.

The alliance rejected the accusations, saying its ships and aircraft assisted in the rescue of over 600 people in the Mediterranean and helped coordinate the rescue of many others.

"To help determine what happened, NATO provided a significant amount of information to the Council of Europe," spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said. "We have no record of any NATO aircraft or ship having seen or made contact with this particular boat."

The report also accused Italy and Malta of failing to launch search and rescue operations even though their rescue coordination centers had pinpointed the position of the stricken vessel.

"No one went to the aid of this boat," the report said.

Tineke Strik, a member of the Dutch Senate who authored the report, also blamed the deaths on the late Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi.

"Qaddafi threatened the refugees in Libya by forcing them to support his regime," she said, causing refugees from sub-Saharan Africa to be targeted by Libyan rebels and forced to flee for their lives.

The report recommended a review of all search and rescue procedures in the Mediterranean and urged NATO to launch its own probe into the incident.

Other human rights groups have also criticized the failure to rescue the boat's passengers, who were from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ghana and Sudan.

Amnesty International said it was disturbed that "(the inquiry) has yet to receive satisfactory replies from key players, including NATO, countries involved in NATO operations, and European Union institutions."

"Everyone involved in this tragic incident must cooperate fully with this investigation," said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty's Brussels office. "Whoever is responsible must be held to account."