A priest who helped hundreds of African refugees escape Libya by boat to Italy, today called on Tripoli's interim leaders to probe an incident at the start of the rebellion in which 400 may have died.

"In the name of their loved ones, we ask for truth to be shed on the facts of the tragedy that made nearly 400 people disappear," said Rome-based Father Mussie Zerai, who also heads up the pro-immigration campaign group Habeshia.

Zerai said the refugees, including 335 adults and dozens of children from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, went missing on March 22 as they tried to flee Libya -- just a few weeks after the revolution against Moamer Kadhafi began.

Two weeks later, Zerai said there were reports of bodies with bullet wounds washing up on Libyan beaches and reports of a gunfight on a refugee boat.

"Now we want to know the truth about what really happened to these people, who were among the first to try to leave Libya during the revolt," he said.

"The Libyan authorities should help us shed light on this tragedy," he said.

"Those responsible for that journey into crossfire are still free in Libya, while hundreds of families are suffering because they do not know what happened to their son, their husband, their wife, their grandchildren," he added.

The first refugee boats from Libya arrived in Italy on March 27.

Zerai played a key role by receiving satellite phone calls from the vessels -- many of them rickety fishing boats that were overcrowded and ill-equipped for the Mediterranean crossing -- and then alerting Italian coast guards.