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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Refugees Fleeing Libya Face Perils at Sea; Dozens Die

VOA News May 09, 2011

Refugees trying to flee the violence in Libya are facing perils at sea, with official reports indicating dozens of people - and possibly very many more - have died aboard refugee ships that lost their way or sank in rough Mediterranean waters.

The United Nations said Monday that a ship carrying 600 refugees from Libya sank off the country's coast on Friday, with an unknown death toll.

Salah Kurdi, a legal adviser with the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, told VOA the boat was heading to Italy from the Libyan capital when it hit rocks and capsized. The Italian coast guard rescued many passengers, Kurdi said, but he had no details about casualties.

Kurdi also disclosed an earlier incident in which a smaller boat fleeing from Libya ran into trouble soon after leaving Tripoli. The vessel floated helpless on the open sea for 16 days, and by the time it drifted ashore - back in Libya - most of the 72 people on board were dead or dying due to hunger and thirst.

Those who survived the ill-fated voyage - all African nationals who had migrated to or were working in Libya - said NATO military units saw their plight but failed to provide any help. NATO denied the refugees' claim, but the British newspaper the Guardian investigated and reported that NATO units apparently ignored the Africans' pleas.

The small ship left Libya in late March, heading for Lampedusa, an Italian island in the middle of the Mediterranean. It ran out of fuel barely 18 hours into its voyage and thereafter drifted without power until currents and tides pushed the craft aground on one of Libya's western beaches on April 10.

The Guardian reported the ship carried 47 Ethiopians, seven Nigerians, seven Eritreans, six Ghanaians and five Sudanese. All but 11 were dead when the ship landed back in Libya last month, and two who survived the ordeal at sea died later in hospitals.

The British newspaper said 20 of the refugees were women and two were young children.

Passengers on the ship told reporters they drifted close to an aircraft carrier and were certain they had been spotted, but no help ever arrived. A military helicopter flew low over the refugees' ship on another occasion, but again no assistance was given.

The Guardian reports its inquiry concluded that the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was in the same area of the Mediaterranean as the refugees' ship. The newspaper said its evidence was presented to a French spokesperson, but there was no official comment in response.

Meanwhile, NATO planes continued airstrikes against Libyan government targets Monday, attacking government weapons depots near the town of Zintan.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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