Migrant boat sinks off Libya, hundreds feared dead

Medeshi March 31, 2009
Migrant boat sinks off Libya, hundreds feared dead
TRIPOLI, Libya – An overcrowded boat packed with migrants seeking a better life in Europe capsized in the stormy Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, killing at least 21 and leaving 200 missing and feared dead four days after the accident, officials said Tuesday.
The boat, which a Libyan police official said had a capacity of just 50, overturned Friday in high winds with about 250 on board. Pictures showed six drowned bodies pulled from the water and stretched out among piles of nets and frayed ropes on the deck of a fishing boat that took part in the rescue.
"It is hard to imagine that there are survivors among the missing by now," said Laurence Hart, an official of The International Organization for Migration.
The missing boat was one of two struggling boats weighed down with migrants in the 60-degree waters on the most heavily traveled route for illegal migrants trying to reach Italy, Hart told The Associated Press.
The second boat, a flimsy vessel packed shoulder to shoulder with about 350 migrants, was rescued safely in the same area about 30 miles (50 kilometers) off land overnight into Sunday after an Italian merchant ship received its distress call, said Italian port authority spokesman Capt. Cosimo Nicastro.
Shown on Libyan television, most of the migrants appeared to be African men, with a few women and children in the group. One man on the rescued boat held a baby as he helped a woman struggling to walk.
Libyan police spokesman Col. Najy Abou Harous said only 21 people — the few passengers able to swim — were rescued from the missing craft.
"We found 21 other corpses. The rest are believed dead," he added. "The boat capacity is 40 to 50 and the smugglers packed it with hundreds. These are wooden fishing boats, not for sailing," Harous said.
Libyan officials released no information on the accident until Tuesday and by then, rescue efforts appeared to be over.
Harous said survivors told him a hole in the rickety boat may have caused it to sink.
"The first boat was rescued and is back to Tripoli. All of them are alive and safe," Hart said.
The rescued boat was spotted near an oil platform that notified Libyan authorities, Hart said.
According to Ron Redmond, chief spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, this is the beginning of the smuggling season in the Mediterranean Sea.
Both boats carried migrants from Africa and the Middle East, Hart said.
Italy has been pressing Libya to crack down on illegal immigration, including with joint Libyan-Italian patrols against the thousands who try to cross the Mediterranean each year. Rome says that many of the illegal African immigrants who arrive in Italy transit through Libya.
According to figures from the IOM, some 33,000 people crossed from North Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2008 alone. Many of the boats are not seaworthy, and deadly accidents are frequent.

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