Toll grows off coast of N. Africa

As many as 950 would-be mi­grants were on the lat­est boat to sink in the Mediter­ranean Sea.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tom Kington and Pa­trick J. McDon­nell

CATA­NIA, Italy — Hun­dreds of peo­ple were feared lost in the Mediter­ranean Sea on Sun­day af­ter a boat car­ry­ing mi­grants to­ward Europe cap­sized off the Libyan coast, au­thor­i­ties said, in what ap­peared to be the lat­est and dead­li­est in a se­ries of mass drown­ings.

A sur­vivor from Bangladesh, flown by he­li­copter to Si­cily, told Ital­ian po­lice that 950 peo­ple were on board the ves­sel, more than the 750 sug­gested ini­tially. In ei­ther case, the dis­as­ter could be the worst yet among the tragedies that have be­come com­mon­place on the mi­grant smug­gling route from North Africa to Europe.

As of Sun­day af­ter­noon, just 28 mi­grants had been found alive as search-an­dres­cue ves­sels and air­craft combed the area, of­fi­cials said. The Ital­ian gov­ern­ment said that 24 sur­vivors had been picked up from the wa­ter.

“They are lit­er­ally try­ing to find peo­ple alive among the dead float­ing in the wa­ter,” Mal­tese Prime Min­is­ter Joseph Mus­cat told the lo­cal press.

Ital­ian and Mal­tese ves­sels were search­ing the area, along with mer­chant ships, of­fi­cials said.

A cri­sis has gripped the south­ern Mediter­ranean as spring-like weather has ap­par­ently prompted many mi­grants to risk their lives on over­crowded and un­sound boats bound for Italy. Ex­ten­sive smug­gling and crim­i­nal net­works in Libya and else­where in North Africa help fa­cil­i­tate the il­le­gal traf­fic.

Au­thor­i­ties said pas­sen­gers on the ves­sel that cap­sized Sun­day were be­lieved to be from Al­ge­ria, Egypt, So­ma­lia, Nige­ria, Sene­gal, Mali, Zam­bia, Bangladesh and Ghana, and in­cluded 200 women and 40 to 50 chil­dren.

Ac­cord­ing to a po­lice state­ment, the uniden­ti­fied Bangladeshi sur­vivor said many pas­sen­gers were locked in lower decks and un­able to es­cape when the boat cap­sized. With so many peo­ple crammed onto the boat, it would have taken lit­tle to un­bal­ance the ship.

The boat had de­parted from a port about 30 miles from Tripoli, he added. Other sur­vivors, who are still at sea on an Ital­ian coast guard ves­sel, are now be­ing ques­tioned, the state­ment added.

A United Na­tions of­fi­cial ini­tially said that warm wa­ters in the area, about 63 de­grees, had lifted hopes of find­ing more sur­vivors as nu­mer­ous ships gath­ered at the site of the wreck. But as the day wore on, res­cuers re­ported find­ing only de­bris

and fuel on the sur­face where the ves­sel had sunk.

The stricken boat was re­ported to have cap­sized late Satur­day or early Sun­day about 70 miles north of the Libyan coast, the em­barka­tion point for many Europe­bound ves­sels packed with mi­grants.

Ini­tial re­ports in­di­cated that boat tipped over when pan­icked pas­sen­gers shifted to one side as a cargo ship, the King Ja­cob, ap­proached about mid­night Satur­day in a bid to res­cue those on the rick­ety craft. The crew of King Ja­cob had been asked by au­thor­i­ties to in­ter­cept mi­grants in dis­tress if they en­coun­tered them.

Most mi­grants on the Mediter­ranean boats are from sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, but their ranks in­clude Syr­i­ans and oth­ers es­cap­ing war­fare and poverty and hop­ing to start new lives in Europe. Many women and chil­dren are among those risk­ing the haz­ardous pas­sage.

Of­fi­cials say the un­sta­ble po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Libya, which has been largely with­out a func­tion­ing gov­ern­ment since strongman Moam­mar Kadafi was over­thrown in 2011, has con­trib­uted to the es­ca­lat­ing cri­sis.

Ital­ian Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo Renzi, speak­ing at an event in north­ern Italy, de­clared that Europe was experiencing “sys­tem­atic slaugh­ter in the Mediter­ranean.” Whether the lat­est in­ci­dent would re­sult in a new Euro­pean strat­egy to con­front the cri­sis re­mained un­clear. How­ever, sev­eral Euro­pean lead­ers said the sta­tus quo was un­ac­cept­able.

“Europe can do more and Europe must do more,” said Martin Schulz, pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. Europe must mo­bi­lize “more ships, more over­flights by air­craft,” French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande told French TV, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported.

Pope Fran­cis, too, called for greater ef­forts. “I make a heart­felt ap­peal to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to re­act de­ci­sively and quickly to see to it that such tragedies are not re­peated,” he said in his weekly ad­dress to fol­low­ers in St. Peter’s Square. He asked the crowd to pray “for th­ese broth­ers and sis­ters.”

Of­fi­cials have re­ported soar­ing num­bers of mi­grant deaths in the Mediter­ranean.

Be­fore the lat­est in­ci­dent, about 900 mi­grants had al­ready per­ished in Mediter­ranean cross­ings so far this year, com­pared with 96 dur­ing the first four months of 2014, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Migration, a Geneva-based group.

Last week, at least 400 Europe-bound mi­grants are be­lieved to have per­ished at sea when a wooden fish­ing boat cap­sized, the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Migration said. One-third of those on board were re­ported to have been women and chil­dren.

That in­ci­dent, like the lat­est one, was be­lieved to have been caused by mi­grants surg­ing to one side of the boat when they saw res­cuers ar­riv­ing.

For all of 2014, the group said, more than 3,200 mi­grants lost their lives dur­ing the treach­er­ous sea cross­ing. In the week be­fore Satur­day’s ac­ci­dent, the group said, Ital­ian mar­itime forces and com­mer­cial ships had res­cued about 10,000.

An Ital­ian navy searc­hand-res­cue op­er­a­tion, known as Mare Nostrum, was called off last year amid claims that it was en­cour­ag­ing mi­grants to set sail.

How­ever, since it was re­placed by a smaller, Euro­pean Union pa­trol known as Tri­ton, sail­ings have con­tin­ued at about the same level, while drown­ings have soared.

At a news con­fer­ence in Rome, Renzi said the in­ci­dent would have hap­pened even if Mare Nostrum had been op­er­at­ing.

“There was a ship next to the boat when it sank,” he said. Renzi urged in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion to halt in­sta­bil­ity in Libya, where a power vac­uum al­lows traf­fick­ers to op­er­ate.

Nev­er­the­less, Loris De Filippi, pres­i­dent of the Ital­ian branch of the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders, blamed the Euro­pean Union’s de­ci­sion to pro­vide only a small-scale res­cue ef­fort this year.

“A mass grave is be­ing cre­ated in the Mediter­ranean Sea and Euro­pean poli­cies are re­spon­si­ble,” he said in a state­ment.

“Faced with thou­sands of des­per­ate peo­ple flee­ing wars and crises, Europe has closed bor­ders, forc­ing peo­ple in search of pro­tec­tion to risk their lives and die at sea,” he said.

“Euro­pean states must im­me­di­ately launch largescale search-and-res­cue op­er­a­tions, with proac­tive pa­trolling as close as pos­si­ble to Libyan shores,” he added.

An­to­nio Guter­res, the U.N.’s high com­mis­sioner for refugees, agreed. “This dis­as­ter con­firms the ur­gent need to re­launch a ro­bust res­cue op­er­a­tion at sea and to es­tab­lish cred­i­ble, legal routes to reach Europe.”

Ital­ian coast guard

ITAL­IANS take part in res­cue ef­forts af­ter a boat cap­sized in the Mediter­ranean. Be­fore this in­ci­dent, about 900 mi­grants had re­port­edly died in the sea this year, com­pared with 96 dur­ing the first four months of 2014.

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