1,200 migrants feared dead during Libya sea exodus: UNHCR

The UN refugee agency said on Friday it feared that up to 1,200 people fleeing Libya have died in the Mediterranean Sea so far, as it found evidence that a military vessel refused to rescue one boat.

Updated: May 13, 2011, 23:12 PM IST

Geneva: The UN refugee agency said on Friday it
feared that up to 1,200 people fleeing Libya have died in the
Mediterranean Sea so far, as it found evidence that a military
vessel refused to rescue one boat.

"There are about 12,000 people who have arrived in Italy
or Malta and we believe that as many as 1,200 people are dead
or have gone missing," said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for
the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

A migrant told the UNHCR that unidentified military
vessels off the Libyan coast refused or failed to pick up a
boat carrying 72 people, most of whom subsequently died of
exhaustion, thirst or starvation in late March or early April.

Fleming said to a news agency that the survivor`s harrowing account
obtained after a long interview yesterday was "compelling and
credible".

"At Shousha refugee camp run by UNHCR in Tunisia we met
with three of the survivors. They were Ethiopian men, they
said they were among only nine survivors from the boat that
left Tripoli on 25 March carrying 72 people," she told
journalists.

The 12-metre (40-foot) craft heading for Italy was packed
with "barely any standing room" and drifted for more than two
weeks after it ran out of fuel, water and food.

"The refugee that we interviewed said that military
vessels twice passed their boat without stopping and then a
military helicopter dropped food and water onto the boat at
some point during the journey," Fleming added.

"The first boat refused their request to board, the
second only took photos," according to the refugee.

The man was unable to identify where the vessels came
from, Fleming said.

"According to the refugee, when water ran out people
drank sea water and their own urine. They resorted to eating
toothpaste," Fleming said.

"One by one people started to die" until the boat reached
a beach in Libya, he said.

The account followed a report in the British newspaper
The Guardian this week claiming that it was likely one of the
ships was the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, which
is helping to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.

The UNHCR is planning to interview the other survivors.
"We don`t have any more information at this time,"
Fleming said.

"We have been in talks with NATO and we`ve just issued a
general call to remind boats and countries that people are
taking this route" on unseaworthy and overcrowded craft, she
added.

PTI