Nineteen people drowned when a boat loaded with as many as 150 people who were thought to be migrants capsized off the northern coast of Cyprus, a Turkish Cypriot official said Wednesday.
Tolga Atakan, the transportation minister in the breakaway north of ethnically divided Cyprus, said that rescue crews were searching for 25 missing passengers in an area where a passing cargo ship reported spotting people in the water.
The Turkish coast guard said it rescued 103 of the capsized vessel’s passengers and took them to Turkey. One seriously injured person was being treated at a hospital in the northern part of Nicosia, Atakan said, referring to the divided capital.
Aysegul Baybars, the interior minister in northern Cyprus, told Turkey’s CNN-Turk television that authorities were investigating whether bad weather, sabotage or other factors caused the sinking.
The capsizing occurred about 16 miles north of Cyprus’ Karpas peninsula, but it’s not yet clear when.
Constantinos Petrides, the interior minister in the internationally recognized government of Cyprus based in the south, said that the number of new arrivals has increased at an alarming pace. The 2,500 asylum applications Cyprus received during the first half of the year puts the country alongside Greece as having the most asylum seekers per capita in the European Union, Petrides said.
Thousands of Europe-bound migrants have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa this year, a dangerous journey often made in overcrowded and inadequate vessels procured by human smugglers.
The International Organization for Migration said before the Cyprus wreck that the number of people who died or went missing this year in the Mediterranean Sea route from northern Africa reached 1,443 by July 15.
Friction between the Italian government and private aid groups that patrol the sea to look for people in danger ratcheted up Wednesday when a Spanish aid organization shunned an Italian port for one in Spain. Proactiva Open Arms said it found a survivor and two bodies from a migrant boat wreck on Tuesday and accused Italy of complicity.
Proactiva accused Libya’s coast guard, which has received training from Italy and funding from the European Union, of abandoning the three people Monday when it took 158 other migrants from the boat and destroyed it.
But the aid group also aimed sharp criticism at Italian authorities, who it said initially granted Proactiva permission to dock in the Sicilian port of Catania.
In a statement Wednesday, the aid group said it did not trust how the Italian government would handle the investigation of Monday’s wreckage after Interior Minister Matteo Salvini referred to Proactiva’s account as “lies and insults.”
The strongman in the new Italian populist government, Salvini has vowed to halt the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, giving aid to Libyan authorities and vowing to close the country’s ports to aid groups it accuses of helping human traffickers by picking up migrants and bringing them to Europe. On Wednesday, demonstrators gathered outside the Interior Ministry in Rome to protest the government’s handling of the migrant crisis.