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3/31: 300 African migrants feared drowned off Libya
Released 01 April 2009  By Ali Shuaib Ali Shuaib - Associated Press

300 African migrants feared drowned off Libya

Ali Shuaib Ali Shuaib - Associated Press

TRIPOLI (Reuters) Some 300 Africans including women and children are feared to have drowned after their boats capsized off Libya, part of a new upsurge of illegal migration to Europe, officials said on Tuesday.

At least 23 bodies were recovered by Libyan coastguards near the wreckage of three rickety boats which sailed from near Tripoli, Libya's Oea daily said, quoting security officials. A similar number were rescued, officials said.

The incident was part of what aid agencies see as a growing trend for poor Africans to seek a better life in the West, whatever the dangers of the journey.

One of the boats was carrying 365 people although it was only supposed to hold 75, Libyan officials said. It was one of four migrant ships which sailed from Libya between Saturday and Sunday, apparently heading for Italy..

"After more than two days of searching, we have found no more bodies or survivors or the boat," a Libyan official said.

Among those missing were Somalis, Nigerians, Eritreans, Kurds, Algerians, Moroccans, Palestinians and Tunisians, officials said.

A Libyan security official quoted a Tunisian survivor as saying: "I was on board the boat with 13 other Tunisians among the 365 migrants. I'm the only survivor. All my fellow Tunisians drowned."

A fourth ship crammed with more than 350 migrants broke down near Libya's offshore Buri oilfield but Libyan coastguards towed the vessel to the port of Tripoli and rescued all the migrants, including women and children.

"Up to three boats appear to have sunk off the Libyan coast. These boats have no life-saving material on board. It would seem that more than 300 people have disappeared at sea," International Office of Migration spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy told Reuters in Geneva.

The IOM said later that it had scaled down the number of missing to more than 200.

"There's no safety equipment on those boats -- no buoys, dinghies or anything -- because the purpose is to cram as many people on those boats as possible with total disrespect for their safety and dignity," Chauzy later told a news briefing.

There had been "massive departures" from Libya in the past 36 hours, hampered by sandstorms in the area, according to IOM.

"Some people reached Italy, some were intercepted and brought back to Libya and some were among the people feared dead," IOM spokeswoman Jemini Pandya said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said the incident marked the beginning of "smuggling season" in the Mediterranean, spokesman Ron Redmond said.

Guterres described it as "the latest tragic example of a global phenomenon in which desperate people take desperate measures to escape conflict, persecution and poverty in search of a better life."

This year, at least 60 Africans have drowned in the Gulf of Aden after traffickers pushed them overboard. In Asia, 550 Muslims fleeing Myanmar are feared to have died after they were allegedly set adrift in boats towed out to sea by Thai forces.

"You've also got this problem in the Gulf of Aden. You've got it in the Caribbean, you've got it in the Atlantic and you've got it in the Mediterranean. You've got it off Australia," Redmond told reporters.

Stricter enforcement against illegal migration in the west Atlantic -- where Africans from countries like Senegal had targeted Spain's Canary islands in past years -- has compelled smugglers to use Libya, whose borders IOM says are "still very porous," as a departure point for Europe.

There are an estimated 1-1.5 million African irregular migrants in Libya, drawn by the need for unskilled labor, according to IOM. It is both a transit and a destination country for migrants.

Most come from West Africa, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria and Ivory Coast, or from Horn of Africa countries led by Somalia and Ethiopia.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Additional reporting by Lamine Ghanmi in Rabat; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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