Italy Demands NATO Investigate Response to Distressed Refugee Boat

Posted August 5th, 2011 at 5:45 pm (UTC-5)
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Italy is demanding NATO investigate whether an alliance warship ignored a distress call from a boat full of refugees trying to flee Libya.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Friday Italy was also asking NATO to consider changing its mission to mandate alliance forces in the region rescue and protect migrants fleeing the conflict by sea.

Italian ships Thursday rescued around 370 refugees from a boat drifting near the Italian Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. Relief organizations say the migrants told of dozens of people who died of dehydration and exhaustion during the six days the rickety boat was on the water.

Reports in Italy say a NATO warship just 50 kilometers away was informed of the situation earlier this week, but refused to come to the migrants aid.

But NATO says it only learned of the ship in distress on Thursday, from Italy. A NATO spokesperson said Friday the Italian Coast Guard confirmed to the alliance it was sending three ships and a helicopter to rescue the migrants. The spokesperson said NATO is working closely with Italian authorities to “fully clarify” what happened.

The spokesperson also said NATO ships have assisted refugees in the past, citing incidents in March and last month.

NATO is operating in Libya under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians from attacks by Mr. Gadhafi's forces.

Meanwhile, the Libyan government has denied rebel claims that one of Moammar Gadhafi's sons was killed in a NATO airstrike, saying the “false news” was designed to cover up the deaths of civilians in the western town of Zlitan.

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim made the comments Friday. Earlier in the day rebels had said Khamis Gadhafi and more than 30 other people were killed in an alliance airstrike on Zlitan, the site of recent clashes between pro-government and opposition fighters.

On Thursday, the government had accused NATO of bombing civilian targets in Zlitan.

A NATO official in Italy said the alliance is looking into the report of Khamis Gadhafi's death.

Khamis Gadhafi has served as one of the main commanders of his father's military forces. His death would deal a strong blow to the Libyan leader's effort to quell a months-long uprising.

Earlier this year, Mr. Gadhafi's government said a NATO airstrike killed another of his sons, Saif al-Arab.