Italy demands to know if Libya blockade warship ignored refugees

After rescue of 370 people by Italian coastguards, Rome asks Nato to investigate if Libyans were left in peril at sea

Italian has demanded that Nato inquire into a report that an alliance warship blockading Libya repeatedly ignored pleas to help several hundred distressed and dying asylum seekers who were stranded at sea after fleeing the wartorn country.

It is the first time Rome has taken such an initiative since the start of the fighting in Libya when people began fleeing across the Mediterranean in often unseaworthy vessels.

Most of the more than 24,000 refugees have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa, angering and embarrassing Silvio Berlusconi's rightwing government, which won power vowing to block illegal immigration.

Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini, has asked his country's permanent representative to Nato to open a debate on whether to amend the alliance's mandate so that it covers "those who for reasons of war are forced to flee on boats, putting their personal safety at risk".

In May, Nato denied an earlier report by the Guardian that its warships had left dozens of Africans to die aboard another vessel drifting off the Libyan coast.

Rome's move follows the rescue by Italian coastguards of 370 people in conditions of extreme distress on an overcrowded boat inside Libya's search and rescue area on Thursday.

One body was found aboard the vessel and a survivor said dozens of other corpses had been thrown overboard.

About 50 people were taken to hospital on Lampedusa suffering from shock, exhaustion and severe dehydration. Two were reportedly in a critical condition.

A Nato spokesman in Brussels told the Guardian that it was not clear whether the boat from which they were rescued was the one allegedly refused assistance. "There were a couple of incidents, and we are trying to sort out which incident this refers to," he said. "We are waiting for confirmation from our military colleagues in Naples."

At allied maritime command in Naples, a spokesman said: "Nato always responds and intervenes in cases of emergency, in compliance with international law.

"The commanders of the ships in service with the alliance are well aware of these laws and respect the Solas [International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea] rules."

According to one survivor, the migrants rescued on Thursday had set off from the Libyan coast the previous Friday.

After their boat's engine failed, they were seen by a Cypriot tugboat which tried to help.

But some of the migrants flung themselves overboard in an attempt to reach the tug and the boat's captain – apparently fearing that the movement of people aboard the vessel might overturn it – pulled away and alerted the Italian authorities.

The Italian news agency, Ansa, citing informed sources, said search and rescue officials relayed the SOS to a Nato vessel 30 miles from the imperilled boat. But, said the report, they did not get "positive responses".

It was not until Thursday morning that four coastguard patrol boats and a helicopter were dispatched from Lampedusa, 100 miles to the north.

Federico Bricolo, chief whip in the Italian senate representing the Northern League, the junior partner in Berlusconi's coalition, said: "Nato must understand it is not there just to shell Libyan cities." He said it should "block vessels departing those coasts and send them back".

[Source: By John Hooper, The Guardian, London, 05Aug11]

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