VALLETTA, Malta — The 50-foot wooden boat drifted across the Mediterranean for five days without food and water after its engine died, unable to propel the 117 people crammed aboard from war in Libya to safety in Europe.
More than once, boats passed within sight, a survivor told The Associated Press: a container ship, a fishing boat, then two big ships, including one that shone a spotlight on the crippled boat. A plane flew overhead.
Still, help did not arrive until the 10th day. By then, a pregnant woman had died after trying to quench her thirst with sea water.
"A lot of people saw our ship. Fishermen, a ship with containers. We even saw a plane in the sky," said Faith Osarnehkoe, a Nigerian who was one of the 116 immigrants rescued by Maltese sailors and the sister of the woman who died.
Reports of migrant boats lost and adrift for days without receiving aid are raising alarm. The U.N. refugee agency has called for better monitoring of the seas for the overcrowded boats and more aggressive intervention.
"The journey is much more dangerous than in the past. We consider each boat leaving Libya in this circumstance is a boat at risk, and should be rescued right away," said Laura Boldrini, the U.N. refugee spokesman based in Rome.
The boat was just one of dozens laden with sub-Saharans who had found work in Libya, then lost their jobs and feared for their lives as Moammar Gadhafi's forces launched fierce attacks to stay in power. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has accused the Gadhafi regime of forcing the migrants into Europe as a way to punish former allies like Italy for joining the NATO campaign against him.
In the last seven weeks, ever-larger, more decrepit boats carrying hundreds of passengers have tried the dangerous crossing.
Osarnehkoe and her sister had been working as hairdressers when they decided to flee. "I wanted to save my dear life," Osarnehkoe told the AP during a rare visit by a foreign journalist to a locked migrant center at a military base on the island nation of Malta.
Osarnehkoe is certain that at least two ships saw the boatload of migrants waving wildly at them. One, on the night before their rescue, even shone a spotlight on them.
"If they didn't see us, they wouldn't have shone the lights on us. Everyone was shouting, 'We need help!' Nobody helped," she said.
After the ship turned off the light and sped away, Osarnehkoe's sister Tina Aeyie, 27, died.
The UNHCR's call to rescue all migrant boats heading north from Libya is complicated by several factors.
A complex search-and-rescue grid governs the Mediterranean and is often the source of tension between Italy, which is bearing the brunt of the arrivals, and Malta, whose enormous search-and-rescue area comes very close to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
More and more often, the migrant boats are traveling with satellite phones, but not all service providers are able to trace a location at sea, and the phones often run out of power.
Malta's Minister for Justice and Home Affairs, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, said authorities were looking into the reports — which are similar to another case involving a ship with 72 migrants that reportedly encountered military vessels that did not offer help, first reported by the Guardian newspaper. All but nine people on that boat died.
Malta, however, disagrees that all boats leaving Libya need to be rescued.
"They have the right of passage and nobody can stop them, not even our forces or a NATO ship," Bonnici said in an interview. "As long as they are not in distress, then it is no issue."
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