Hundreds feared drowned off Libya
3/31/2009 5:15:20 PM -
Hundreds of people are feared dead after at least one boat packed with suspected illegal migrants heading for Europe sank off the coast of Libya.
Libyan officials said at least 21 people had died and about 20 were rescued after a vessel reportedly carrying 250 people went down.
There are unconfirmed reports that up to two more boats, carrying more than 300 people, also sank in the same area.
Tens of thousands of migrants attempt to reach Europe by sea every year.
Italy has announced that it will soon start joint sea patrols with Libya aimed at stopping the heavy influx of illegal migrants.
Laurence Hart, of the International Organization for Migration, said he feared as many as 500 migrants from three boats could be missing.
"There is still a slim chance that some of these people are going to be rescued but the casualties are going to be high of course," he told BBC World TV.
Mother and baby
The vessel reportedly carrying more than 250 people ran into difficulties shortly after setting off from Sidi Bilal, near Libya's capital, Tripoli.
In Cairo, Egyptian foreign ministry official Ahmed Rizk said the boat had sunk some 30km (19 miles) off the Libyan coast after getting holed in the hull.
"Libyan search and rescue operations led to the recovery of the bodies of those who drowned as a result of the accident, among them the bodies of 10 Egyptians," said Mr Rizk.
The BBC's Rana Jawad in Tripoli says among the dead was an African woman found lifelessly clutching an infant to her bosom, according to Libyan media reports.
The nationalities of other migrants on the boat were not immediately known, but reports said they included Tunisians and Palestinians.
Unconfirmed reports from Reuters news agency said another boat with 342 migrants aboard had also sunk after leaving Libya.
A Libyan official, who did not wish to be named, told Reuters on Monday that both shipwrecks had taken place "in the past two days" and that search and rescue operations were continuing.
The agency's Libyan sources said that two more boats were "drifting off Libya's coast but we do not know the exact conditions and the number of the migrants on board".
Libya has become a popular transit point for illegal migrants hoping to start a new life in Europe.
Many of the would-be migrants come from Egypt, where there is a high rate of youth unemployment. They usually head for Italy.
Often the vessels they use are not seaworthy, which can mean they end up in difficulties. At least 40 people drowned when a boat sank while making the crossing last June.
According to official figures, more than 30,000 migrants reached Italy's shores last year.