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NATO, navies faulted in refugee deaths

BRUSSELS - 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 the vessel drifted for two weeks without assistance when its engine failed.

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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.

The report said a helicopter dropped biscuits and water to the migrants but never returned to their vessel, while a large military ship 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 helped rescue more than 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 . “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 stricken vessel.

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