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As many as 200 feared dead in latest Libya migrant boat capsizings

As many as 200 feared dead in latest Libya migrant boat capsizings
A capsized boat carrying migrants that sank off the coast is pulled to shore in Zuwara, Libya, on Thursday. (Mohamed Ben Khalifa / AP)

Up to 200 people were feared dead in the latest boat capsizing off the Libyan coast, international aid groups said Friday, as dozens of bodies washed ashore or were retrieved from one sunken ship's flooded hold.

Two sinkings occurred Thursday in the Mediterranean off western Libya, officials said, the first a small craft and the second a larger vessel thought to be carrying some 400 would-be migrants. Libya's poorly equipped coast guard used fishermen's boats to pluck survivors and corpses from the water overnight and into the morning hours.

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Othman Belbeisi, the International Organization for Migration's chief of mission for Libya, said in a statement on IOM's website that 100 people had been rescued, including women and children. If those still unaccounted for turn out to have drowned, it would be one of the summer's deadliest sinking episodes.

In Geneva, Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said the two boats had carried about 500 people. "We believe 200 are still missing, feared dead," she told journalists.

Separately, UNHCR reported Friday that more than 50 migrants had died on another voyage originating in Libya this week. Rescuers in Sicily found 52 bodies aboard the boat, most apparent victims of suffocation after having been locked below deck.

"It was a boat of death," one survivor told the U.N. agency.

In Thursday's sinkings, a Red Crescent official, Ibrahim Attoushi, told Reuters that 82 bodies had been recovered. One of the sunken boats was towed back to port, the Associated Press reported, and would-be rescuers found drowned bodies when they broke through the deck to its flooded hold.

The capsizings took place off the western town of Zuwara, heavily used by human smugglers as a launching point for sea voyages. Libyan state authority has all but collapsed as rival armed groups fight for territory and oil wealth, and human trafficking goes largely unchecked. Boats used by smugglers are usually rickety and overcrowded.

For those who were rescued and handed over to Libyan authorities, the failed voyage may usher in a harsh new chapter. Capsizing close to the Libyan coast generally results in would-be migrants being taken to dirty, hot, crowded detention centers, where they can be held for long periods without adequate food or medical care.

The latest victims at sea were thought to include many sub-Saharan Africans too poor to find another route to Europe rather than passing through lawless Libya.

This summer has seen a massive shift in migration via the land route through Greece and the western Balkans to wealthy northern European countries like Germany; much of that surge is made up of asylum-seekers from Syria and Afghanistan.

The perils of overland travel were underlined Thursday with the grim discovery in Austria of a refrigerated truck that contained the decomposing remains of 71 people who apparently were being transported by smugglers.

Despite the dangers, the migrant tide shows no sign of abating. UNHCR said Friday that more than 300,000 migrants and refugees had crossed the Mediterranean this year, and 2,500 had drowned trying.

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