An extensive report into the deaths of scores of African migrants who were left adrift at sea while trying to flee the war in Libya has suggested that the British military may have known about their plight.
Some 63 of the 72 migrants on board died on the “left-to-die” boat in 2011, most of thirst and starvation. The 90-page report, published by Goldsmiths University in London, used “forensic oceanography” technology to chart the movements of the boat, which drifted for two weeks unaided, despite claims it was known to both Nato and participating forces.
According to the few survivors, a “military helicopter” twice had visual sightings of the boat and communicated with those on board, but left the area without providing assistance.
The description of the helicopter is alleged to be that of a British Westland Lynx, believed to have served in the operation against the crumbling Libyan regime at the time.
The British military has so far refused to co-operate with any investigation into the incident, and the MoD has denied its helicopters were in the area at the time of the boat crisis.
However, one of the survivors was shown pictures of helicopters serving in the area at the time and identified the Lynx.
According to the report, survivor Dan Haile Gebre, was “presented him with several photographs of different helicopters in operation at the time of events”. When he was showed the image of the Westland Lynx helicopter of the British Army, he immediately said it was “exactly like this”.
According to survivors’ accounts, a ship also came into contact with the migrant boat, but again abandoned those on board. The ship may have been French, according to one survivor, who alleges that it was flying the French flag.
The report states: “At first, after the ‘left-to-die boat’ case was reported in the international press Nato denied being involved in any way in the incident”.
In May 2011, Carmen Romero, Nato deputy spokesperson, stated that: “We [Nato] can find no evidence whatsoever of any Nato ships being involved in this tragic incident.
Nato subsequently admitted that the Italian coastguard had informed the organisation of the vessel’s plight.
The newly-published report goes further, highlighting a “number of elements” that suggests that Nato was informed of the “the migrants’ distress”.
Dan Haile Gebre described the first encounter with the helicopter as follows: “It circled around us 4-5 times and came closer. It was making a lot of wind, and we almost lost our balance”.
A second survivor, Abu Kurke Kebato added: “The helicopter came very close to us down, we showed him our babies, we showed them we finished oil, we tell them ‘Please help us.’”
Further damning testimony alleges that that the helicopter bore the English writing “ARMY”.
According to the report, “a Westland Lynx 140, a battlefield utility helicopter of the British Army which does bear the writing “ARMY” on its side and can be used for SAR operations, was spotted in June 2011 in Malta on-board the HMS Ocean, a landing platform dock ship that took part to the military operation in Libya”.
Britain and the US refused to co-operate with a recent Council of Europe investigation into the tragedy, which concluded that the deaths were avoidable, blaming institutional failures within Nato and its constituent countries’ military forces for the tragic outcome.
Subsequent to that investigation, Nato has come under increasing pressure to identify the helicopter and the boat that are believed to have contacted the migrant vessel, but have so far refused to release classified imagery.
The Goldsmiths report, which used advanced technology to map the drift of the migrant boat, highlights the ease with which a rescue operation could have been initiated by Nato.
The research concludes by stating “participating states/Nato forces had the information and the ability to assist the migrants but failed to do so in a way that would have prevented the deaths of 63 people,” adding that “only through further inquiry and disclosure by all parties involved will they receive the definite answers they deserve.”
When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told the Huffington Post UK that British forces operating at sea are “fully aware of their obligations under maritime law to render assistance to those in distress”.
According to the MoD, there is no record of any Nato aircraft – British or otherwise – having seen or made contact with this particular vessel.
“Furthermore, the witness states that the helicopter in question bore the word “ARMY” on its side. We can categorically state that there were no British Army Lynx in the Mediterranean during this period.”