BRUSSELS – A top European rights watchdog has blamed NATO, Libyan authorities and smugglers for the deaths at sea of 63 people fleeing the Libyan war in March 2011 -- a charge the military alliance is disputing.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, known as PACE, said Tuesday that NATO in particular "failed to react to distress calls" from the boat carrying the refugees in part of the Mediterranean Sea under its control.
The victims included citizens of Ethiopia, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ghana and Sudan.
NATO, whose warships and aircraft were patrolling the area at the time, rejected the accusations, saying its ships and aircraft helped to rescue over 600 people in the Mediterranean and coordinated in the rescue of many others during the seven-month conflict.
NATO warplanes flew more than 9,600 strike missions in the war, which ended after the capture and death of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in October.
Tens of thousands of people fled Libya in 2011, many of them aboard rickety boats heading for Malta and Italy. Many were Africans who lived and worked in Libya but were wrongly viewed by rebels as being Qaddafi supporters.
Search and rescue authorities, NATO, states with naval vessels in the area, Libyan authorities and people traffickers shared responsibility for the 63 deaths, PACE said.
The boat, which left Tripoli with 72 people on board a week after the beginning of international air strikes on Libya, washed up on the Libyan coast 15 days later with only nine people still alive, even though distress messages giving its last known position were regularly broadcast to all ships in the area, PACE said.
It 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.
PACE demanded that NATO conduct an inquiry into the incident and provide comprehensive answers to outstanding questions.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the tragedy appeared to be the result of an unfortunate sequence of events.
"If there was a missed opportunity to help, we deeply regret it," Lungescu said in a statement. "But it is clear that the primary responsibility for this tragedy lies with the Qaddafi regime, human traffickers and the captain of the boat, all of whom put in danger the lives of the innocent people onboard."