Italy on Friday urged NATO to help rescue refugees fleeing Libya by sea and called for an inquiry into reports the alliance failed to aid a stricken boat on which dozens were said to have died of dehydration.
NATO’s mandate in Libya should be changed “to take into consideration the care and rescue of those who are forced to flee by boat, putting their lives at risk because of combat operations,” the Italian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Italy said it had requested “an internal discussion” on the issue within NATO.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini later said in a television interview that there was “an obligation to protect desperate civilians put on boats by [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi on boats and sent to die in the Mediterranean.”
Hundreds of refugees — mainly migrant workers from other parts of Africa who were stranded in Libya when the conflict broke out — have drowned or died on board rickety boats in desperate crossings from Libya in recent months.
Twenty-five refugees are believed to have choked to death in the engine room of a boat that was intercepted by Italian coast guards on Monday and taken to the island of Lampedusa — a rocky outcrop in the middle of the Mediterranean.
Some of the 370 survivors from another boat that arrived in Lampedusa on Thursday after leaving Libya on Friday last week said dozens who had died of hunger and thirst were thrown overboard, -according to Italian media reports.
Italian official sources cited by ANSA said Italy had on Thursday asked for help from a NATO vessel participating in the naval embargo on Libya after being alerted to the stricken refugees by a Cypriot -tugboat that had spotted them.
Pietro Bartolo, the head of the main clinic on the island, said that around 30 refugees were being treated and were in “a really pitiful state” as some had tried to drink sea water. Many of them were in a delirious state, he added.
Italian Chief of Defense Staff Biagio Abrate said he had contacted the commander of NATO-led operations in Libya, Charles Bouchard, over the incident.
NATO said it had been told by Italy on Thursday about a distress call, but then confirmed that Italian coast guards had responded to the incident.
“Facts of the incident are still emerging and we are working closely with Italian authorities to fully clarify the matter,” NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said in Brussels, adding that NATO had assisted refugees in the past.
NATO gave two examples — a helicopter rescue of some refugees in March and a NATO ship taking in 100 refugees last month and then delivering them to Tunisia.
However, alliance ships patrolling the sea off Libya have been severely criticized for failing to come to the rescue of boats that are often badly overcrowded.
The refugees who arrived in Italy on Thursday were eventually rescued by Italian coastguards in Libyan waters about 167km from Lampedusa —Italy’s southernmost point and a major migration hub.
European Commissioner for Home affairs Cecilia Malmstroem said “all vessels have an obligation to render assistance to those in distress at sea.”
She praised Italy’s efforts to help the refugees.