GENEVA (AP) — The U.N. refugee agency appealed to European countries Tuesday to step up rescue efforts for people fleeing the violence in Libya, warning that hundreds have drowned in recent weeks after their overloaded boats capsized in the Mediterranean Sea.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said European authorities patrolling the Mediterranean 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," the spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, told reporters in Geneva.
It appears now that hundreds of Libyans have lost their lives at sea in recent weeks, and Fleming said the boats will only keep on coming.
The U.N. agency said at least 800 people are unaccounted for since boats started leaving Libya on March 25. That figure does not include those who perished Friday when a boat believed to have been carrying 600 people capsized near Tripoli, the Libyan capital, killing many if not most of those on board.
Ms. Fleming said a Somali diplomat in Tripoli told the agency that 16 bodies, including those of two babies, had been retrieved so far.
And the number of migrants is increasing, she said. Five boats carrying 2,400 people have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa recent days, and every one of those boats needed to be rescued by the Italian coast guard and police, she said.
"We honestly believe that the Italian coast guard is doing its best," Ms. Fleming said. But she added that, given how many people have drowned, "something isn't working."
The Rev. Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest, said he was contacted by refugees aboard a ship who said their call for help was ignored by Western forces in late March. NATO has denied the claim, first reported by the Guardian newspaper in Britain.
With the battery of the satellite phone aboard the boat quickly running out, Father Zerai said, he called the Italian coast guard but 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," Father Zerai told the Associated Press in an interview Tuesday near the Vatican. "They were approached by a helicopter on Saturday, March 26, which provided them with water to drink and biscuits to eat. 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 to 400 meters from them, so it is not possible that they weren't seen," he said. "They made signals; they told me they showed empty tanks to say they had no water, held up the children who were on board.
"They drifted for 15 days, and slowly people started to die. The first to die were the two children, and then from hunger and thirst 61 people died," Father Zerai said.
Vittorio Alessandro, a spokesman for the Italian coast guard, told La Repubblica newspaper that he did receive the alert from the priest, but on March 27. He said they alerted Maltese authorities and sent out a warning to vessels in the area to stand ready to help.
A senior NATO official, Brig. Gen. Claudio Gabellini, said there was "absolutely no evidence of NATO ships being involved in such events." Gen. Gabellini, who spoke by phone from Naples, Italy, is the chief operations officer for "Unified Protector," the code name for NATO's mission in Libya.
Ms. Fleming said the U.N. agency could not confirm the account, which she said came from survivors who had been imprisoned by the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader. The Guardian did not provide details about the location or condition of the survivors.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim suggested European countries had bought a wave of illegal immigration upon themselves by supporting NATO airstrikes on his country.
"For years and years ... we worked very hard to prevent illegal migration to Europe, and we succeeded," he said Monday. "But now, because of the NATO aggression against our country and because our coastal border guard is being hit daily ... we are unable to deal with this situation, and that is why Europe is being flooded with illegal immigration," Mr. Ibrahim said. "We cannot be the guards of Europe at this moment."
Aid groups have suggested that rather than preventing migrants from reaching Europe as it did previously, Libya now may be encouraging many to leave.
The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration said some of those arriving on Lampedusa recently reported being forced onto boats by Libyan soldiers.
Associated Press writer Alessandra Rizzo in Rome; Diaa Hadid in Tripoli, Libya; and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.