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300 African migrants feared drowned off Libya
Tue Mar 31, 2009 3:00pm EDT
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By Ali Shuaib
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Some 300 Africans including women and children are feared to have drowned after their boats capsized off Libya, part of a new upsurge of illegal migration to Europe, officials said Tuesday.
At least 23 bodies were recovered by Libyan coastguards near the wreckage of three rickety boats which sailed from near Tripoli, Libya's Oea daily said, quoting security officials. A similar number were rescued, officials said.
The incident was part of what aid agencies see as a growing trend for poor Africans to seek a better life in the West, whatever the dangers of the journey.
One of the boats was carrying 365 people although it was only supposed to hold 75, Libyan officials said. It was one of four migrant ships which sailed from Libya between Saturday and Sunday, apparently heading for Italy.
Italy had reached an agreement with Libya on joint sea patrols to try to stem the flow of illegal migrants and that might have prompted migrants to attempt to sail before the accord becomes effective on May 15.
"That (agreement) may have been a push factor which people smugglers exploited telling would-be migrants: 'it is now or never'," said Laurence Hart, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) representative in Tripoli.
There are an estimated 1-1.5 million African irregular migrants in Libya, drawn by the need for unskilled labor, according to IOM. It is both a transit and a destination country for migrants
"After more than two days of searching, we have found no more bodies or survivors or the boat," a Libyan official said.
Among those missing were Somalis, Nigerians, Eritreans, Kurds, Algerians, Moroccans, Palestinians and Tunisians, officials said.
A Libyan security official quoted a Tunisian survivor as saying: "I was on board the boat with 13 other Tunisians among the 365 migrants. I'm the only survivor. All my fellow Tunisians drowned."
A fourth ship crammed with more than 350 migrants broke down near Libya's offshore Buri oilfield but Libyan coastguards towed the vessel to the port of Tripoli and rescued all the migrants, including women and children.
THREE BOATS SUNK
"Up to three boats appear to have sunk off the Libyan coast. These boats have no life-saving material on board. It would seem that more than 300 people have disappeared at sea," an IOM spokesman in Geneva said.
The IOM said later that it had scaled down the number of missing to more than 200.
"There's no safety equipment on those boats -- no buoys, dinghies or anything -- because the purpose is to cram as many people on those boats as possible with total disrespect for their safety and dignity," the spokesman said. Continued...
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