BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The Council of Europe has found NATO largely responsible for the deaths last year of 63 Libyan migrants whose boat was left to drift at sea unaided, and warned that those to blame could face legal action.
After a nine-month investigation into the deaths of those and hundreds of other migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, the human rights and democracy group concluded that NATO had failed to respond adequately to a boat in distress.
The rubber dinghy, packed with 72 people, left Libya in March 2011. After running out of fuel, it drifted off the coast for two weeks while most of those on board died of starvation and thirst, before floating back to Libya with only 9 survivors. The boat sent repeated distress signals, but received no help although ships under NATO command were in the area.
"Vessels under national or NATO command failed in their duty to rescue a boat in distress," the Council of Europe wrote in a 26-page report released on Thursday.
"There was a failure by NATO and individual member states involved in planning Operation Unified Protector off the Libyan coast," wrote Tineke Strik, a Dutch senator, adding:
"NATO did not fully take up its responsibilities, with communications about the boat in distress not being forwarded by NATO headquarters in Naples to vessels under its control."
The report also quoted a "reliable source" as saying that two naval vessels involved in NATO's operations against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were near the boat when the distress call was sent, as were two fishing vessels.
The 28-nation military alliance said in a statement it had received a general notice from Italian authorities about a small boat in difficulty and had sent that message to all NATO ships, following usual practice. It denied any contact had been made between NATO and the distressed boat.
"We have no record of any NATO aircraft or ship having seen or made contact with this particular boat," said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu, adding that NATO had conducted many other rescue operations in the area at that time.
"Throughout our arms embargo mission last year, NATO ships and aircraft directly assisted in the rescue of over 600 people, and helped coordinate the rescue of many others."
At its meeting in Brussels on Thursday, the Council of Europe adopted a resolution calling on NATO to release satellite imagery from the area in an effort to pinpoint which military units came across the boat.
These photos could be used as a basis for legal action against whoever was responsible for ignoring the migrants' calls for help, the Council said.
Strik, who wrote the report, said she had spent months trying to establish who bore responsibility for the deaths and added: "I have been deeply shocked by what I have learned."
Thousands of migrants tried to reach Europe from north Africa last year, many of them fleeing the turmoil of Arab Spring uprisings aboard small, flimsy, overloaded boats.
(Writing by Daniel Rolle; editing by Luke Baker and Tim Pearce)