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An unrescued refugee ship? Back to an unsolved drama (Maj)

(BRUXELLES2, exclusive) A boat loaded with refugees wanders in the Mediterranean in full view of everyone, its passengers end up dying one after the other, there is reason to be shocked by this tragedy revealed by Human Rights Watch and the British daily The Guardian. But it may be interesting to look for the causes. HRW points to NATO. The Guardian adds another protagonist, pointing to the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. Without really much explanation. The shortcut — it seems — is a bit quick. And if we take all the facts presented (and without contesting their veracity), we can also arrive at two other versions, strangely evaded by my dear British colleagues...

Three facts to consider

According to published testimonies:

1° A boat – loaded with mostly African migrants – leaves Tripoli on Friday (March 25) and heads for Lampedusa, 180 nautical miles to the northwest. After 18 hours at sea, engine problem, the boat is then 60 miles from Tripoli. Using the onboard satellite phone, they called brother Moses Zerai in Rome who contacted the Italian coast guard. They claim to have issued the alert to all ships in the area.

2° Indeed, on Saturday (March 26), or during the night of March 26 to 27, a helicopter marked “army” (in English) appeared above the boat and dropped bottles of water and a packet of biscuits. No further help will arrive.

3° On Tuesday (March 29) or Wednesday (March 30), the boat is close to an aircraft carrier. 2 jets take off from the boat signaling the refugees. According to The Guardian, it is the Charles de Gaulle.

Who could own a helicopter with the “Army” logo?


The Lynx helicopter which is normally on board the Cumberland does bear the inscription "Royal Navy" like most British helicopters... but not all (in the background the HMS Westminster) (credit: UK Royal navy)
The Lynx helicopter which is normally on board the Cumberland bears the inscription “Royal Navy” like most British helicopters… but not all (basically HMS Westminster) (credit: UK Royal navy)


A fact emerging from the survivors' testimony was apparently put into perspective by the accounts given in the press: the presence of the helicopter and the location of the events.

The precise circumstances assume, in fact, that the alert was indeed given and transmitted by the coast guard, that the boat was then precisely located, that the coalition gave its agreement to this overflight (we are in the no-fly zones) and that the location of the boat was therefore known both to the Italian (or even Maltese) authorities and to the warships in the area.

The location is important: 60 nautical miles from the coast, close to Libyan territorial waters. We are here in a “war” zone, where “civilian” boats do not normally venture. It is therefore logical that the coast guards are not present and hand over to the military.

The signal from the (military) helicopter confirms this. It was not an Italian or Maltese coastguard helicopter (they are white) that traveled, but a helicopter from one of the ships deployed off the coast of Libya. There are many of them at that time.

Several ships are present in the area. NATO claims control of around twenty ships: 4 Italian (ITS ETNA, ITS GARIBALDI, ITS LIBECCIO, ITS BETTICA), 1 Canadian (HMCS CHARLOTTETOWN), 1 British (HMS CUMBERLAND), 1 Greek (HS LIMNOS), 1 Spaniard (ESPS MENDEZ NUNEZ), 5 Turks (TCG GEMLIK, TCG YILDIRIM, TCG GELIBOLU, TCG GAZIANTEP, TCG AKAR), one Dutch (HMNLS HAARLEM), 1 Belgian (BNS NARCIS). Not everyone is in the area involved, and not everyone has a helicopter, particularly the Dutch or Belgian minehunters.

There are also coalition ships such as the American amphibious group (USS Kearsarge, USS Ponce), British (HMS Westminster) or French (Forbin) ships. Finally, there are ships which are in transit in the Mediterranean, towards the Indian Ocean or the Atlantic. Also present in the sector is an immigration surveillance mission, the European Union mission “Hermès”, coordinated by the border surveillance agency (Frontex). But the Europeans respond that they were not in the area at all. Also read: A ship loaded with refugees gets lost in the Mediterranean! What does Frontex answer?

The acronym “Army” is of the helicopter is however surprising because most of the helicopters deployed in the sector bear the term “Marine” (France), “Marina” (Italy), “Royal Navy” (for the Merlin or Lynx equipping the HMS Westminster or the HMS Cumberland present in the area), “Navy” (for the various helicopters on board American ships).

To my knowledge, only one country – in the area – could have the acronym, “Army”, the British, for their army helicopters, also used for commandos… The Americans generally use an acronym “United States” to their “land” helicopters, the acronym “Army” remains used for certain helicopters (particularly emergency). It's a shame that The Guardian didn't push its investigative skills further!

The presence of an aircraft carrier: and why not an American ship?

The presence of the aircraft carrier, however, seems more vague. For NATO, the only ship it had under its command was the Italian aircraft carrier Garibaldi; but he was “more than 100 nautical miles” from the area. The French authorities, for their part, certify that the Charles de Gaulle was at that time approximately 200 nautical miles from the Libyan coast (while the refugee ship was around 60 miles).

An Av8B Harrier aircraft lands on the deck of the USS Kearsarge (credit: US Navy / 3rd Class Scott Pittman)

Oddly, our colleagues stopped at these explanations. However, in my opinion, there was in the area at least one other ship with the same characteristics as an aircraft carrier, theUSS Kearsarge (LHD3), this amphibious ship is an aircraft carrier which regularly hosts (and hosted during operations – the US Navy confirms) vertical take-off AV-8B Harriers.

In any case, the fact that no one noticed on board an aircraft carrier or amphibious ship can be explained. These ships are high on the water. And the attention is focused elsewhere – unlike a mission like in the Indian Ocean where we regularly observe the sea, looking for suspicious boats –. Planes taking off do not normally look vertical, their mission is a war mission with an objective and a well-trodden route.

The fact that people in distress have been seen from a ship and left without help troubles more than one sailor. “ There is an intangible law of the navy, when a sailor comes across a boat in distress, he goes to its aid in one way or another (alert, sending resources, etc.). This law is very strong in the navy. And I would be very surprised if a sailor ignored this law." a soldier explains to me. And, indeed, not a week goes by in the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden or the Indian Ocean without a military ship coming to the aid of a dhow or a boat that is broken down or has problems. …even if they are refugees.

Context elements

The date of the events is important. And it is interesting, if we want to understand and explain the drama rather than simply pointing a guilty finger, to highlight three facts which took place at the end of March.

Military operations are in full swing. Thus, on March 28, the American ship USS Barry was engaged in Misrata (NB: Misrata is approximately 100 nautical miles from Tripoli and very close to the place of arrival of the boat), with an A-10 Thunderboldt plane (which looks like a fighter plane) and a P3 Orion plane against a Libyan coast guard ship, the Vittoria, and two small boats which fire on all the ships in the port of Misrata.

Command is in transition. Since March 23, NATO has just taken command of the maritime control operations of the embargo. But it is not yet in charge of all the “no fly zone” and “strike” missions which remain the work of an ad hoc coalition (France, United Kingdom, USA, Canada, Belgium, Denmark ). The allies decide on Sunday (March 27) to entrust NATO with the conduct of operations which will pass under NATO control on Thursday (March 31). In fact, it will take a few more days. Many ships are therefore present in the area on a national basis.

italian coast guard helicopter (credit: guardia costiera)

The arrival of numerous boats carrying refugees on the Italian coast. On March 29, the High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) noted 5 boats arriving in Italy since Saturday carrying 1484 people. And two boats arrive in Malta with 535 people, a third boat having docked around noon with 250 people on board. Often, the coast guards have to intervene, as when a boat with nearly 500 people on board ran aground on the southern coasts of Sicily, during the night from Monday to Tuesday. Sometimes it is military ships that intervene, such as on March 24 or 25, the Canadian ship HMCS Charlottetown intercepted a ship near the Libyan coast with several displaced people on board. On the Italian coast, a helicopter from Etna comes to the aid of a pregnant woman in difficulty.

Another explanation?

From these elements of context, we can give some elements of explanation.

On the side of NATO and the military, the transition between two chains of command which are not stabilized – on one side NATO in charge of the embargo, on the other the coalition in charge of the No Fly zone – Or "everyone did what they wanted” according to the testimony of a soldier, hardly makes the rescue task easier. And, clearly, the allied military forces – which are not very numerous – are focused on the offensive towards the Libyan regime. The American command also announced, at that time, that it was withdrawing around ten ships from the zone of operations.

On the Italian side, the mass arrival of immigrant boats has raised alarm, the coast guards are on edge and are rescuing several boats. We can therefore assume that they, overwhelmed, considered their work accomplished, once the alert was passed on to other ships. We can also add that the ship in distress was not located in their intervention zone, but in the middle of the conflict zone, where there were other ships closer and suitable for the search.

In the area, it would be interesting to know which ship or nationality was the military helicopter that intervened. And why was there no sequel? We can estimate that the helicopter (American or British) – tasked by the Italians – believes it did the job. He throws food, thinks he sees that everything is fine, walks away and then leaves on another mission (or even leaves the area). The fate of the boat is left to other authorities – he then considers. A hypothesis all the more likely as we are then in the middle of combat – the rebels are advancing and retreating – and bombing.

Finally, there is perhaps also risk-taking that the helicopter (and its hierarchical authority) does not want to assume, by getting closer or taking the passengers on board; a terrorist risk (undoubtedly overestimated but very real). This risk is all the more felt as the Kearsarge has already been targeted by a terrorist attack in the port of Aqaba, Jordan, in 2005.

We can explain this “non-assistance to a person in danger” both by this loss of information, unfortunately classic in a rescue operation where uncoordinated elements intervene, between the coast guard and the military. Both the former and the latter considered having done their job. The rest can be explained by the conflict situation where risking the life of a European/Western soldier must be measured against a cost-benefit balance. Is it better to save a few refugees or risk the life of a soldier? Depending on whether we choose the ethical or political point of view, the answer will be different.

(Maj) The UNHCR interviewed, in a camp in Tunisia, 3 Ethiopians, who were on the boat and confirmed all the facts, and even additional details, reporting the refusal of ships to take them on board. According to the UNHCR, 10% of migrants who take to the sea will never reach the other side. Read here

This is not the first time that refugees have drowned or died on the immigration route. But this shows how European maritime surveillance projects make sense, in the Mediterranean (the Mare Nostrum), not only to monitor but also to provide assistance. Several “Crossmed” on a European scale would be more than necessary, essential. This also shows how important it is for European states to develop a policy to welcome refugees from Libya. And that it is equally important to quickly provide pathways for foreigners stuck in Libya to extricate themselves from the situation. Finally, it is necessary to have an investigation not by a political body (the Council of Europe promises an investigation) but a judicial one (because it involves non-assistance to a person in danger).

* Un Cross – Regional Operational Surveillance and Rescue Center – coordinates sea rescue in France. Crossmed – established in the Var at La Garde – is competent for the Mediterranean.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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