At least 200 migrants, mostly sub-Saharan Africans and South Asians, were missing and feared drowned after an overcrowded boat that left Libya bound for Italy capsized in the Mediterranean, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday.
The doomed craft ran aground Wednesday on a sandbank near a chain of Tunisian islands, about 185 miles northwest of Tripoli. It capsized as desperate passengers rushed to one side seeking rescue by approaching Tunisian coast guard and fishing boats, the U.N. said.
An extensive Tunisian rescue effort managed to save at least 570 passengers, said Firas Kayal, a U.N. refugee agency spokesman in Tunisia. But at least 200 passengers, including women and children, fell into the sea and were still missing Friday, the U.N. said.
Rescue operations continued, but stormy weather was hampering the effort. If those missing are not rescued, it will be one of the deadliest incidents since a wave of migrants began abandoning war-torn Libya, seeking to cross the sea in rickety vessels for refuge in Europe.
Many of the migrants performed low-wage jobs in Libya but lost their employment or feared for their lives as civil strife and open warfare engulfed the North African nation.
About 1,500 migrants who lived in Libya are believed to have perished at sea since March, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The passengers on the capsized boat were mostly from West Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The boat set sail Saturday from Tripoli, the Libyan capital, the U.N. said, and was headed for the Italian island of Lampedusa, about 200 miles away. Lampedusa, the closest Italian island to Africa, has become a favored destination for massive numbers of migrants and refugees seeking to enter European Union nations.
Overloaded and often unseaworthy boats now depart regularly from Libyan shores. Before Libya erupted into warfare, its coast guard craft were often able to intercept the migrant boats and turn them around or discourage them from leaving shore, Libyan authorities say. Libya agreed to patrol the shores for migrant vessels under agreements with Europe.
But Tripoli now says that North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led bombing raids have destroyed much of the nation’s coast guard fleet, rendering it incapable of stopping the flow. NATO says it has struck only warships capable of harming civilians.
The boat’s crew consisted of people “with little or no maritime experience,” the U.N. said in a statement. The craft experienced problems with its steering and power and became lost at sea, the U.N. said after interviewing survivors. By the third day, the U.N. said, passengers had run out of food and water.
Seven survivors, including two pregnant women, were in intensive care in Tunisian hospitals, the U.N. said