A bipartisan group of senators is pressing to repatriate the remains of 13 American sailors who died two centuries ago fighting pirates off the Libyan coast.
The sailors’ remains have been buried near the shores of Tripoli for 207 years after the sailors died in a failed mission against Barbary pirates.
In recent years, a small group of descendants has been seeking to bring them back to the United States. That effort appeared to gain momentum last spring, when the House backed a measure that would force the Defense Department to repatriate the remains. But the measure stalled in the Senate.
This week, a group of key senators wrote to the leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees, urging them to include a repatriation provision in the defense authorization bill that’s in conference committee. Although the cemetery was recently restored, the senators said, it remains in jeopardy because of concerns about U.S.-Libyan diplomacy..
“Today, the future of our relations with Libya is uncertain,” the senators wrote. “For this reason, the restoration and preservation of the American Cemetery and its graves for the Navy’s sailors are ... problematic.”
The Navy, however, opposes bringing the remains back to American soil, saying it considers Libya to be the sailors’ “final resting place.” Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has asked the Navy and other defense officials for more information about their views on the issue. The Navy has said it has concerns about the ability to identify the remains.
In their letter, the senators backing the measure said there was no comparison between the physical state of the cemetery in Tripoli and other overseas locations where U.S. troops are buried, and that, as a result, they supported the effort to “exhume, identify and to repatriate.”
An assessment from the Congressional Budget Office found that repatriating the remains would cost $85,000 to $100,000, according to the letter.
The letter was signed by Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Jim Webb (D-Va.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).