GENEVA • At least 239 migrants, many believed to be from West Africa, have died in two shipwrecks off Libya, a spokesman for the United Nations migration agency, said yesterday.
One group of migrants, including about 20 women and six children, set off in a rubber dinghy from Libya around 3am on Wednesday.
But their boat collapsed after a few hours, said Mr Flavio di Giacomo, a spokesman for the UN's International Organisation for Migration, who cited accounts by survivors.
By the time rescuers arrived, most had drowned. Twelve bodies were recovered, including three babies. About 27 survived.
Those pulled to safety were transferred to the island of Lampedusa by the Italian coast guard.
Another two women reported surviving a separate disaster that happened at about the same time. Their rubber dinghy was carrying about 130 people.
"They told us they were on a faulty dinghy which began to sink as soon as they set sail. They were the only survivors," said spokesman Carlotta Sami for UN refugee agency UNHCR. But the Italian coast guard said it had no information on a second reported rescue on Wednesday or the saving of two women.
Analysts say rescue situations are often chaotic, with people confused, sick or exhausted after periods in crisis-hit Libya unable to specify how many people were on board their dinghies at the outset or what vessel pulled them from the water.
The International Organisation for Migration said the latest deaths meant 4,220 lives had been lost in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year, compared with 3,777 in the whole of last year.
Many of those killed in the latest two incidents are believed to be migrants from West Africa, the BBC reported yesterday.
Last month saw a surge in migrant arrivals in Italy, with 27,388 arriving, more than the two previous Octobers combined, and bringing this year's total arrivals to over 158,000, Mr di Giacomo said.
The smugglers who arrange the journeys have told migrants that European training of Libyan coast guards means the rescue missions will soon be handed over to Libya and any rescued migrants will be taken ashore in Libya rather than Italy, Mr di Giacomo said.
That was possibly causing the rush to board boats now, he said, although the information, gleaned from rescued migrants, was not confirmed.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE