Jack Shenker and Kim Willsher,
A damning new report into the death of dozens of African migrants who were left drifting in the Mediterranean last year has concluded that Nato contributed to the 63 deaths, and raises the possibility of British military forces being connected with the tragedy.
The 90-page study by experts at Goldsmiths, University of London, employed cutting-edge forensic oceanography technology to determine the exact movements of the doomed migrant vessel, which was left drifting for two weeks in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, despite European and Nato officials having been aware of the boat’s plight and location.
Almost everyone on board, including two babies, eventually died of thirst and starvation.
The report reveals that the survivors’ description of a military helicopter that twice hovered over and communicated with their boat, but flew off without attempting a rescue, corresponds almost exactly to the British army’s Westland Lynx helicopter. Units of Lynxes are known to have been operating in the Mediterranean during the Libyan conflict, but the Ministry of Defence has denied any were present at the time of the incident and insists there is no record of any of their forces encountering the dinghy.
It also quotes survivor testimony suggesting that a naval vessel that came into direct contact with the migrants, which also ignored their cries for help, could have been French.
The latest revelations will increase the pressure on Nato to release classified imagery and data that could help identify the units responsible for failing to mount a rescue operation. The question of which units ignored the migrants gained significance on Wednesday after French human rights lawyers formally announced the start of legal action against those deemed culpable of the deaths.
The case has been launched « against X » – designating an unknown person or persons and a legal device to encourage the widest possible investigation into a suspected criminal act – and is being brought for non-assistance of a person or people in danger. At a press conference in Paris, the legal team said they did not rule out bringing similar legal action in Britain, Canada, Italy and Spain to establish where the blame for the migrants’ deaths lay.
Patrick Baudouin, president of the Federation Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues), said the human rights investigators had satellite photographs « and concrete elements », of the military vessels they want to identify.
Stéphane Maugendre, president of the Paris-based Groupe d’Information et de Soutien des Immigrés (Group for Information and Support of Immigrants), said the legal action was targeted at the French military. « We think the French army knew of the presence of this boat, especially as it was photographed, almost certainly by a French aircraft, » he said. « Several distress messages were sent out in the Mediterranean. There were, even more symbolically, extraordinary technical means at hand. Even so, more than 60 people were left to die. »
Last month, an investigation into the incident by the Council of Europe, the continent’s human rights watchdog, found that a catalogue of institutional and legal failures had resulted in the avoidable deaths of the migrants. It called on Nato and its member states to launch separate inquiries into why so many military units, including a Spanish frigate under Nato command that was sailing in the immediate vicinity of the boat, failed to respond to the migrants’ desperate pleas for help.
A row subsequently erupted between Nato and Spain after the Spanish ministry of defence publicly contradicted Nato’s official version of events.
The latest report draws together scientific expertise from London, New York and Berlin, and uses advanced remote-sensing and drift-modelling technology. It outlines the scale and sophistication of Nato’s maritime surveillance operation in the Mediterranean at the time of the Libyan conflict, and the ease with which a rescue of the stricken boat could have been undertaken.
It echoes the Council of Europe in condemning Nato, and claims to demonstrate « a high degree of involvement on the part of participating states/Nato command and assets that contributed to the death of 63 passengers on board the ‘left-to-die boat’ and to grave psychological and physiological consequences for all 72 passengers. »
Nato initially denied any knowledge of the migrant boat, only later to admit that the Italian coastguard had informed it of the boat’s location. The military alliance insists this information was passed on to the units under its control, but the Spanish have challenged Nato to prove the claim; Nato has since refused to answer questions on the matter.
It seeks to establish exactly which military helicopter and naval vessel made contact with the migrants only to leave them adrift at sea, despite the passengers holding aloft dead babies and empty fuel tanks to indicate their predicament.
Although the lack of co-operation from military forces has so far made a definitive identification impossible, the report uses the migrant survivors’ description of the helicopter to rule out nearly all of the models that may have been based in the Mediterranean at that time, with the exception of the British Lynx.
One of the survivors was shown a series of photos depicting different types of helicopters; on seeing the Lynx he immediately told researchers that the helicopter that made contact with the migrant boat was « exactly like this ».
The British Ministry of Defence said there was no record of any of its Lynx helicopters seeing the migrants’ vessel. A spokesman said: « British forces operating at sea are fully aware of their obligations under maritime law to render assistance to those in distress. Throughout Operation Ellamy [the codename for Britain’s participation in the Libyan conflict], support was offered to a number of vessels with personnel fleeing Libya. All British military helicopters in this area were operating under Nato authority. There is no record of any Nato aircraft – British or otherwise – having seen or made contact with this particular vessel. »