July 10, 2011 / 11:08 PM / 8 years ago

NATO answers refugee boat's mayday off Libya

* Vessel carrying pregnant women, children

* Spanish warship provides food and water

By David Brunnstrom

OVER THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA OFF LIBYA, July 10 (Reuters) - NATO aircraft and a warship went to the aid of an overcrowded vessel in danger of sinking off the coast of Libya on Sunday with dozens of refugees aboard.

NATO military officers said the vessel, thought to be carrying about 60 Libyan refugees, was spotted by a U.S. NATO aircraft about 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Tripoli in international waters between Libya and Tunisia.

A British NATO AWACS command-and-control aircraft flying above the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast relayed instructions for a NATO maritime patrol aircraft and told the Spanish warship Juan de Bourbon to investigate, the officers told reporters aboard the British plane.

“An American aircraft intercepted a mayday call,” one of the officers said. “It turned out to be an overcrowded boat in danger of sinking.”

A second NATO officer said the vessel, which was about 30 metres long, was found to be carrying 60 people. He said reports from a Cypriot-registered tug that first made contact with the boat said there were four pregnant women among 17 women aboard as well as eight children.

“It’s got engine trouble and is dead in the water and listing,” a second officer said.

Sailors from the Spanish ship had provided those aboard with food and water and both the warship and the tug were standing by to provide further assistance.

This could involve taking passengers aboard the warship or towing the vessel back to shore, the officers said. “But the refugees are now safe,” one said.

Thousands of refugees have fled fighting in Libya, heading towards Europe often in vessels that are not seaworthy with inexperienced crew. Hundreds have died.

NATO aircraft and ships have been enforcing a United Nations-mandated no-fly zone and an arms embargo on Libya as well as conducting air strikes for the past months.

The aircraft include Airborne Early Warning and Control (AWACS) planes from Britain, the United States, France and those jointly owned by the 28-nation NATO alliance that coordinate the maritime and air missions from high above the Mediterranean.

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