A EU rights group has blasted NATO and Western coast guards for failing to aid a boatload of migrants adrift in the Mediterranean Sea during last year's military campaign against Libya.

A report by a Council of Europe committee said that only nine of 72 people on board the vessel survived after it drifted in open seas for two weeks without assistance after its engine failed.

NATO, whose warships and maritime aircraft were patrolling the area at the time, enforcing an arms embargo against Libya, rejected the accusations.

Tens of thousands of people fled Libya to neighbouring countries during the war, many of them aboard rickety boats heading for Malta and Italy. They included a large number of Africans who had either lived and worked in Libya or were waiting for an illegal crossing to Europe.

“NATO failed to react to the distress calls, even though there were military vessels under its control in the boat's vicinity when the distress call was sent,” the report, published on Thursday, said.

The report said that a helicopter dropped biscuits and water to the migrants but never returned, while a large military vessel came into close contact with the boat but ignored obvious distress signals.

The migrants eventually drifted back to Libya, but not before most of those aboard died of exposure or thirst.

The alliance rejected the accusations, saying its ships and aircraft assisted in the rescue of over 600 people, and helped coordinate the rescue of many others.

The report also accused Italy and Malta of failing to launch search and rescue operations although their rescue coordination centres had pinpointed the position of the stricken vessel.

“No one went to the aid of this boat,” the report said.

The report, which took nine months to compile, recommended a review of all search and rescue procedures in the Mediterranean. It also called on NATO to launch a probe into the incident.

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