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.
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.”
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.