The UN's refugee agency appealed to European states today to step up rescue efforts for migrant workers fleeing war-torn Libya, warning that around a thousand have drowned in recent weeks.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said that European authorities patrolling the Mediterranean sea should not wait to receive distress calls from stricken vessels before offering assistance.
"Any boat that is leaving Libya should be considered, at first glance, as a boat in need of assistance," Ms Fleming declared.
She said that at least 800 people remain unaccounted for since boats started leaving Libya on March 25, days after Nato launched its bombing campaign.
That figure does not include those who perished on Friday night when a boat believed to have been carrying 600 Arab and African people capsized near Tripoli, killing many if not most of those on board.
And the number of migrants is increasing, Ms Fleming warned.
Five boats carrying 2,400 people had arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa in recent days, she said - and every one of those boats needed to be rescued.
Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest, said he was contacted in late March by refugees aboard a ship who said their call for help had been ignored by Western military forces.
Mr Zerai said he called the Italian Coast Guard and was told they couldn't locate the boat but had alerted all the competent maritime authorities. With still no news, he called Nato on March 28.
"Fifteen days later, survivors told us what had happened," Mr Zerai said.
"They were approached by a helicopter on March 26, which provided them with water and biscuits. Then it vanished, it didn't send any help.
"Three days later they were spotted by an aircraft carrier. They do not know what nationality it was, but they said it was some 300-400 metres from them, so it is not possible that they weren't seen," he said.
"They drifted for 15 days and slowly people started to die."
Nato Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini said there was "absolutely no evidence of Nato ships being involved in such events."
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