ROME (AFP) - At least 14 people died when a boat packed with migrants sank between Libya and Italy on Monday, in the latest shipwreck tragedy to hit the Mediterranean.
The Italian navy said another 200 people had been rescued, while some media reports claimed as many as 400 people had been on board the ship – just days after another migrant boat disaster off Libya.
“Fourteen bodies have been recovered so far. Medical workers on the Sirio and the Grecale are providing assistance to the 200 survivors,” the Italian navy said, referring to two warships on the scene.
The local Jesuit refugee centre said the toll could be significantly higher, talking of at least 40 dead.
Medical personnel from the Order of Malta humanitarian group who assisted the survivors said there were many women and children from sub-Saharan Africa among them. “Our personnel attended to many cases of hypothermia and dehydration,” said the group’s Italian head Mauro Casinghini.
Two Italian coast guard vessels and several merchant ships that scrambled to the area were also taking part in the high-seas rescue operation, the navy said, adding that a helicopter had also been deployed.
Libya has long been a springboard for Africans seeking a better life in Europe and the number of illegal departures from its shores is rising due to clement weather conditions and growing lawlessness. Hundreds of migrants land in Italy almost every day, most of them asylum-seekers from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria, and many are picked up by Italy’s navy.
The latest shipwreck happened some 185 kilometres south of Lampedusa island, Italy’s southernmost point. The area is near an offshore oil rig in international waters and is closer to Libya than to Italian shores.
Italian media cited coast guards as saying that some 400 people had been on board the migrant boat, which would leave scores of people still unaccounted for. “Our ships are there recovering the dead and saving the living. Europe is not helping us,” Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said, adding that “the Mediterranean is not an Italian border but a European border”.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton voiced her regret at the migrants’ deaths and called on the Libyan authorities “to intensify their efforts to prevent more tragedies in the future.”
Immigration charities estimate that some 20,000 migrants have died in the past two decades trying to reach Italy and have called for “humanitarian corridors” to allow asylum-seekers to reach Europe.