Nearly all of those on board died from thirst and hunger after their vessel was left to drift in open waters for 16 days.

Dozens of African migrants were left to die in the Mediterranean Sea after a series of European and NATO military units apparently ignored their cries for help, the Guardian has learned.

A boat carrying 72 passengers, including several women, young children and political refugees, ran into trouble in late March after leaving Tripoli for the Italian island of Lampedusa. Despite alarms being raised with the Italian coastguard and the boat making contact with a military helicopter and a NATO warship, no rescue effort was attempted.

Nearly all of those on board eventually died from thirst and hunger after their vessel was left to drift in open waters for 16 days. “Every morning we would wake up and find more bodies, which we would leave for 24 hours and then throw overboard,” said Abu Kurke, one of only nine survivors. “By the final days, we didn't know ourselves ... everyone was either praying, or dying.”

International maritime law compels all vessels, including military units, to answer distress calls from nearby boats and to offer help where possible. Refugee rights campaigners have demanded an investigation into the deaths, while UNHCR, the United Nation's refugee agency, has called for stricter cooperation among commercial and military vessels in the Mediterranean in an effort to save human lives. “The Mediterranean cannot become the wild west,” said spokeswoman Laura Boldrini. “Those who do not rescue people at sea cannot remain unpunished.” Her words were echoed by Father Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest in Rome who runs the refugee rights organisation Habeshia, and who was one of the last people to be in communication with the migrant boat before the onboard satellite phone ran out of battery. “There was an abdication of responsibility which led to the deaths of over 60 people, including children,” he claimed. “That constitutes a crime, and that crime cannot go unpunished just because the victims were African migrants and not tourists on a cruise liner.” This year's political turmoil and military conflict in North Africa has fuelled a sharp rise in the number of people attempting to reach Europe by sea, with up to 30,000 migrants believed to have made the journey across the Mediterranean over the past four months. Large numbers have died en route; last month alone, more than 800 migrants of different nationalities who left on boats from Libya never made it to European shores and are presumed dead.

The boat of 72 set sail from Tripoli on March 25, carrying 47 Ethiopians, seven Nigerians, seven Eritreans, six Ghanaians and five Sudanese migrants. Twenty were women and two were small children, one of whom was just one year old.

The boat's Ghanaian captain was aiming for the Italian island of Lampedusa, 290 km north-west of the Libyan capital, but after just 18 hours at sea the small vessel began running into trouble and losing fuel.

Using witness testimony from survivors and other individuals who were in contact with the boat's passengers during its doomed voyage, the Guardian has pieced together what happened next.

The account paints a harrowing picture of a group of increasingly desperate migrants condemned to death by a combination of bad luck, bureaucracy and the apparent indifference of European military forces who had the opportunity to attempt a rescue.

The migrants initially used the boat's onboard satellite phone to call Father Zerai in Rome, who in turn contacted the Italian coastguard. The boat's location was narrowed down to about 100 km outside of Tripoli, and coastguard officials assured Father Zerai that the alarm had been raised and all relevant authorities had been alerted to the boat's situation.

Soon afterwards a military helicopter with the word “army” on its side appeared above the boat. The pilots, who were wearing military uniforms, lowered down bottles of water and packets of biscuits and gestured to passengers that they should hold their position until a rescue boat came to help. The helicopter then flew off, but no rescue boat ever arrived.

No country has yet admitted to sending the helicopter that made contact with the migrants. A spokesman for the Italian coastguard said: “We advised Malta that the vessel was heading towards their search and rescue zone, and we issued an alert telling vessels to look out for the boat, obliging them to attempt a rescue.” The Maltese authorities denied they had any involvement with the boat.

After several hours of waiting, it became apparent to those on board that help was not on the way. The vessel had only 20 litres of fuel left, but the captain told passengers that Lampedusa was close enough for him to make it there unaided. It was a fatal mistake. By March 27, the boat had lost its way, ran out of fuel and was drifting with the currents. “We'd finished the oil, we'd finished the food and water, we'd finished everything,” said Kurke, a 24-year-old migrant who was fleeing ethnic conflict in his homeland, the Oromia region of Ethiopia. “We were drifting in the sea, and the weather was very dangerous.” At some point on March 29 or 30, the boat was carried near to a NATO aircraft carrier — so close that it would have been impossible to be missed. According to survivors, two jet planes took off from the ship and flew low over the boat while the migrants stood on deck and held the two starving babies aloft into the air. But from that point on no help was forthcoming. Unable to manoeuvre any closer to the giant aircraft carrier, the migrants' boat eventually drifted away. Shorn of supplies, fuel or means of contacting the outside world, they began succumbing one by one to thirst and starvation.

The Guardian has made extensive enquiries to ascertain the identity of the NATO aircraft carrier, and has concluded that it is likely to have been the French ship Charles de Gaulle, which was operating in the Mediterranean on those dates.

French naval authorities initially denied that the ship was in the region at that time. After being shown news reports which indicated this was untrue, a spokesperson declined to comment.

A spokesman for NATO, which is coordinating the military action in Libya, said that it had not logged any distress signals from the migrant boat and had no records of the incident. “NATO units are fully aware of their responsibilities with regard to the international maritime law regarding safety of life at sea,” said an official. “NATO ships will answer all distress calls at sea and always provide help when necessary. Saving lives is a priority for any NATO ships.” For the migrants, the failure of the NATO ship to mount any rescue attempt proved fatal; over the next 10 days, almost everyone on board died. “We saved one bottle of water from the helicopter for the two babies, and kept feeding them even after their parents had passed [away],” said Kurke, who survived by drinking his own urine and eating two tubes of toothpaste. “But after two days, the babies passed too, because they were so small.” On April 10, the boat washed up on a beach near the Libyan town of Zlitan near Misrata. Of the 72 migrants who had embarked at Tripoli, only 11 were still alive and one of those died almost immediately on reaching land. Another survivor died shortly afterwards in prison, after Qadhafi forces arrested the migrants and detained them for four days.

Despite the trauma of their last attempt, the migrants — who are hiding out in the house of an Ethiopian in the Libyan capital — are willing to tackle the Mediterranean again if it means reaching Europe and gaining asylum there.

“These are people living an unimaginable existence, fleeing political, religious and ethnic persecution,” said Father Zerai. “We must have justice for them, for those that died alongside them, and for the families who have lost their loved ones.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

(Additional reporting by John Hooper and Tom Kington in Rome, and Kim Willsher in Paris.)

More In: Comment | Opinion