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May 13, 11

NEWS / Survivors of Libyan boat tragedy give fresh accounts to UN refugee agency

13 May 2011 –
As United Nations officials voice concern about the growing number of people dying at sea as they try to flee the ongoing fighting in Libya, the UN refugee agency has received fresh accounts from the survivors of a boat disaster that killed more than 60 people earlier this year.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staff met yesterday at a refugee camp in Tunisia with three ethnic Oromo men from Ethiopia who told them they were among only nine survivors from a boat carrying 72 people that departed Tripoli, the Libyan capital, on 25 March.

The 12-metre boat was severely overcrowded and soon ran out of fuel, water and food, drifting for more than two weeks before reaching a Libyan beach between Tripoli and the Tunisian border.

UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming said the men gave harrowing details of the boat’s journey, with passengers forced to drink sea water or their own urine once fresh water ran out.

“They ate toothpaste. One by one people started to die,” Ms. Fleming said, detailing the account given by one of the survivors. “He said that they waited for a day or two before dropping the bodies into the sea. There were 20 women and two small children on board. A woman with a two-year-old boy died three days before he died.”

After reaching the shore, a woman died from exhaustion and the remaining survivors were taken to hospital and then to prison, but were later released after Ethiopian friends paid the jail $900.

Ms. Fleming said the Ethiopian refugees also reported that military vessels twice passed the boat without stopping and that at one point a military helicopter dropped food and water on to the boat.

The passengers had paid smugglers $800 to make the journey and were expected to operate the boat on their own.

Ms. Fleming said UNHCR is now providing the survivors with assistance in Tunisia.




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