Tripoli, Libya: A wooden boat with around 170 African migrants on board trying to reach Europe has sunk off the Libyan coast, a spokesman for the Libyan navy said Saturday.
Migrants have been streaming out of North Africa in rickety boats in rising numbers for years. So far in 2014, the total number reaching Italian shores has passed 100,000, the Italian government said last week.
“The coast guards have rescued 17 of the illegal migrants,” navy spokesman Ayoub Qassem said. A search for the rest of the passengers was underway, he added.
The boat sank near Guarabouli, east of Tripoli, a common launch pad used by human traffickers smuggling people to Europe, Qassem said.
Italy has borne the brunt of patrolling the Mediterranean Sea to help prevent major tragedies involving migrants. More than 70,000 people have been rescued through the “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea) mission of patrols which Italy began last October.
“We are looking for 170 African passengers on a wooden boat that has foundered off the Guarabouli area” some 60km east of Tripoli, coastguard official Abdul Latif Mohammad Ebrahim said.
He said the coastguard was lacking in resources, and had only one patrol boat to search for the missing people.
An AFP journalist reported seeing the body of a child who was nevertheless wearing a life-jacket.
The coastguard official was unable to give any firm details of the nationalities of the victims or survivors, but added: “It seems that among them are Somalis and Eritreans.”
People smugglers thrive
People smugglers have been thriving in Libya, an oil-rich nation marred by unrest and political rivalries and where the interim government lacks the manpower and resources to monitor the coast properly.
On Thursday, Tunisian fishermen rescued 75 migrants who had been drifting at sea for five days after leaving Libya aboard an inflatable in an attempt to reach Italy.
The migrants were in a state of extreme fatigue by the time they made landfall in Zarzis, in southern Tunisia, where emergency services took charge of them, an AFP correspondent reported.
Earlier this month, Tunisian coastguards intercepted 90 African migrants whose makeshift boat heading from Libya for the Italian island of Lampedusa broke down off Zarzis.
In July more than 20 migrants drowned while dozens disappeared at sea when their boat capsized off the Libyan coast. Survivors said there had been 150 people on board.
In June, Italian sailors recovered the bodies of 10 migrants after their rubber dinghy sank off Libya, while dozens others were rescued.
On August 12, EU border agency Frontex said the number of boat migrants arriving in Italy soared 500 per cent in the first half of the year, already topping a 2011 record during the Arab Spring uprisings.
The Warsaw-based agency said 78,300 people had arrived in the European Union by the end of July via the hazardous Mediterranean route from Libya to mainly Italy, but also Malta.
“Libya is highly unstable as it is now, and that means that the people-smuggling networks are flourishing,” Frontex spokeswoman Izabella Cooper told AFP.