9/7/2011   12:47 PM

GUARDIAN : Priest appeals for justice for African migrants left to die on boat

A priest who alerted the world to a boat carrying dying African migrants in the Mediterranean has appealed for justice at the launch of a European investigation into claims that the boat was ignored by a military helicopter and an aircraft carrier.

“I spoke to the migrants, I alerted the authorities. People were on that boat waving babies in the air when the naval vessel passed, and yet they still died of hunger and thirst,” said Father Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest based in Rome. He received a panicked phone call from the boat, which had left Tropoli for Lampedusa carrying 72 sub-Saharan Africans on 25 March but had run out of fuel.

On Tuesday Zerai, along with three of only nine survivors of the boat trip, were interviewed in Rome by the Dutch senator Tineke Strik, who is heading a Council of Europe inquiry into claims that a military helicopter dropped water to the migrants but then vanished and that a naval vessel simply ignored them.

“What I have heard today is horrific,” said Strik, who is planning interviews with officials from Nato and the Maltese government, which the Italian coastguard says was alerted to the boat’s plight.

“I still see the people dying before me when I sleep,” said Abu Kurke, 23, an Ethiopian survivor who met Strik. “The helicopter gave us water but did not save us – are we not human beings?” Kurke had spent 12 months in a Libyan jail before attempting the dangerous sea crossing.

Zearai, founder of a group assisting migrants in Italy, said he had received about 50 desperate calls from migrants on board sinking or drifting vessels this year thanks to the broadcast of his number on African radio programmes.

The UN says that of 28,000 sub-Saharan Africans who have boarded rickety vessels in 2011 to flee persecution and bombs in Libya, 1,500 have never been seen again, either drowning as their overcrowded vessels sank or dying from hunger and dehydration.

For thousands who had escaped to Libya from famine or oppression, the treacherous sea crossing promised a new life in Europe. But Muammar Gaddafi struck a deal with Italy in 2008 to halt the boats and threw many migrants into prisons. He switched tack when Italy joined the Nato bombing campaign, according to former loyalists, and encouraged sailings in an effort to turn tiny Lampedusa into a “migrant hell” using “human bombs” to punish Italy. Boatloads of Africans arrived on the island, joining 26,000 Tunisians sailing to Italy after the overthrow of the Tunisian government.

Zerai said the biggest tragedy of all had attracted the least media attention. A boat loaded with 335 migrants, mainly Eritreans, left Tripoli on 22 March only to disappear without trace. “Relatives – from Canada, the US and Europe – of most of the passengers have called, but there is nothing I can say to them.”

Now, despite the overthrow of Gaddafi, Zerai believes renewed persecution may encourage migrants to continue sailing.

On Tuesday, Zerai said he was astonished at the courage of the survivors of the 25 March sailing whom he met in Rome.

“They first landed back in Libya with terrible sunburn, including eye damage, but, incredibly, these three Ethiopians got straight back on boats and made it to Italy the second time,” he said.

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