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France

Navy denies French warship left African migrants to die

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-05-10

The French navy and NATO have denied allegations in the UK’s Guardian newspaper that the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier (pictured) fatally ignored distress calls from a migrant boat in the Mediterranean.

The French Navy rebuffed Monday a report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper that the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle let 72 migrants starve in the Mediterranean.

"If the sailors had seen a boat in distress, they would have obviously helped it," French navy spokesman Thierry Burkhard said Monday.

According to the article published on Sunday, the aircraft carrier ignored the African migrants' calls for help, causing the deaths of 61 aboard the tragedy-struck ship.

One survivor, Abu Kurke, interviewed by the British daily declared that around March 29 or 30, the migrants’ boat floated near an aircraft carrier that could not have missed their presence.

“Extensive inquiries” identified that the carrier was “likely to have been the French ship Charles de Gaulle,” the Guardian wrote, without offering further details .

However, France's Burkhard stated, “The Charles de Gaulle was never in contact with the boat, because it was never located in that area."

A NATO spokeswoman, Carmen Romero, also dismissed allegations that a NATO military ship had been in contact with the refugees. “A single aircraft carrier was under NATO command at that time, the Italian ship Garibaldi, and it was more than 100 nautical miles away,” she said. “Therefore, any statement that a NATO aircraft carrier spotted then ignored the distressed vessel is false.”

The Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier operates under the command of the French navy. Only its jets, once called into mission, come under the command of NATO.

Drifting for 16 days

"We'd finished the oil, we'd finished the food and water, we'd finished everything," said Abu Kurke, the 24-year-old Eritrean who survived the ordeal. The man described a nightmarish voyage on a ship that was allowed to drift at sea for 16 days.

According to the Guardian’s account, the ship sailed off from Tripoli on March 25 with 72 passengers, including women and children, aboard. The boat was to transport the African migrants to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Shortly after setting sail the captain realised the ship was leaking fuel. The crew used a satellite phone to call a catholic priest in Rome before the batteries ran out. The priest alerted Italian authorities of the ship’s problem.

Then came the alleged encounter with the NATO aircraft carrier that filled the distressed passengers with hope, then horror. Abu Kurke said the ship drifted for ten days, the refugees succumbing to thirst and hunger one by one.

"We saved one bottle of water for the two babies, and kept feeding them even after their parents had passed," Kurke told the Guardian, "but after two days, the babies died too, because they were so small."

On April 10, the vessel finally landed on a beach in eastern Libya, near the city of Misrata. Security forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi detained the survivors and held them captive for four days before releasing them, according to the Guardian. Only nine of them survived the detention.

Date created : 2011-05-09

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