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Migrant boat sinks off Libya, hundreds feared dead

TRIPOLI, Libya – An overcrowded boat packed with migrants capsized in stormy seas off the coast of Libya, killing at least 20 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. The bodies of six migrants pulled from the water on Sunday, at least three of them women, were laid out among piles of nets and frayed ropes on the deck of one of the fishing boats that took part in rescue efforts.

The boat capsized in 60-degree waters about 30 miles off the Libyan coast on the most heavily traveled route for illegal migrants trying to reach Italy, Laurence Hart, an official of The International Organization for Migration, told The Associated Press.

“It is hard to imagine that there are survivors among the missing by now,” Hart said.

More than 20 people were rescued from the overturned boat and about 20 bodies were recovered on Sunday, Hart and a Libyan police official said. A second boat with about 350 migrants aboard was rescued safely in the same area on Sunday, the officials said.

Libyan television showed footage of the flimsy boat that was rescued, packed with people shoulder to shoulder. Most of the migrants appeared to be men from Africa, although women and children were also among the group. A man could be seen carrying a baby and helping a woman who could barely walk.

“The second boat has vanished and only 21 were rescued and those were the ones who were able to swim,” said Libyan police spokesman Col. Najy Abou Harous. “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 did not release information on the accident until Tuesday. Libyan and Italian naval vessels as well as fishing boats all scoured the seas Sunday for survivors although rescue efforts did not appear to be ongoing Tuesday.

Harous said survivors told him the boat was in poor condition to begin with and a hole may have caused it to sink.

Both boats carried migrants from Africa and the Middle East, some of them Syrian Kurds, Hart said.

“The first boat was rescued and is back to Tripoli. All of them are alive and safe,” Hart said. “The second boat, I believe 240 people are missing. Rescue was quick for the first boat because they were near an oil platform that notified the Libyan coastal guards who quickly rescued the migrants,” he added.

“For the second one, it is believed to be in the same area,” Hart said.

Hart said the boat overturned about 30 miles north of Libyan coastal town of Maleta and about 50 miles west of Tripoli.

“This is the typical route for migrants from Libya toward Italy,” 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.

In Italy, port authority spokesman Capt. Cosimo Nicastro said an Italian merchant ship, flanked by a Libyan vessel, rescued a boat carrying 350 people on the night between Saturday and Sunday. The merchant ship received a call for help from an oil platform that had spotted the immigrant boat, said Nicastro.

The Italian ship, flanked by a Libyan military vessel, found the immigrant boat shortly after midnight about 50 miles off Tripoli. The ship towed the immigrant boat ashore, reaching the Tripoli port at around 3 p.m. Sunday, Nicastro said.

It was not immediately know where the boats sailed from in Libya.

Libyan police said 17 of those rescued from the capsized boat went to hospitals in Libya in poor condition because they had been in the sea for a long time without food or water. He said the capsized boat had not yet been found.

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