African migrants adrift for three days rescued after call to friend in UK

Click to follow

An international rescue operation saved a boat full of African migrants, including pregnant women and children, last night after British coastguards were alerted to the vessel, which had been set adrift for three days without food or water in the Mediterranean.

Alex Berhanu, an economics lecturer from London, received a desperate satellite phone call from his half brother at midnight on Tuesday. His half brother told him he was on board the tiny vessel somewhere off the Libyan coast. Mr Berhanu then alerted the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) in Falmouth.

Despite reports last night that all 59 people on board had been rescued, Mr Berhanu's half brother said two of his fellow passengers had already died

"They said 'we are dying, we haven't had any food or water for three days. Please help us'," Mr Berhanu said. "These traffickers, they are evil. I want to save these people at any cost. If there is any way I can help I will do it. We cannot let these children die," he added.

It is understood the migrants were already in a weakened condition, having spent a week locked in a warehouse in Libya prior to setting sail. They had paid traffickers thousands of dollars to secure their flight from Ethiopia.

After Mr Berhanu raised the alarm, British coastguards contacted the migrants and pinpointed their position before alerting colleagues in Italy and Malta and sending out distress calls to merchant ships. They lost contact with the boat when the mobile phone ran out of power.

But a Tunisian-registered vessel, the Ashtart, responded and located two vessels containing about 80 people. Both vessels declined assistance. But then Italian coastguards launched an aircraft which spotted four boats 110 miles off Tripoli. All were believed to contain illegal migrants.

Mr Berhanu, who is married with two daughters and has lived in Britain for 15 years after fleeing civil war in Ethiopia, said the traffickers loaded the migrants – who believed they were in Italian waters and heading for the island of Lampedusa – on to a waiting commercial vessel, where they were robbed and then set adrift in a damaged dinghy, from which they were eventually rescued. Thy had been transported thousands of miles overland through Sudan and Chad. Of the 59 migrants, 15 were women, and four of them pregnant. There were also seven children.

Mr Berhanu, 49, said: "I have been tortured myself, and being denied food and water is the worst possible torture. No person should be allowed to treat others like this... I advised my half brother to go back to Ethiopia, but for some reason young people are fixated about Europe... These traffickers are scum people who lick your blood like a leech. They take every penny you have. I tell my family it is better to live and be poor than die like this."