Survivors from a boat that foundered off Libya’s coast said about 50 people who embarked with them were feared dead, while the coastguard said the number of missing might be as high as 100.
Libyan coastguard vessels picked up nearly 300 migrants from three boats off the coast of the North African country on Tuesday, but one rubber boat was punctured and the coastguard only found 16 survivors clinging to wreckage.
“We found the migrant boat at about 10 o’clock this morning, it had sunk and we found 16 migrants. The rest were all missing and unfortunately we didn’t find any bodies or survivors,” said Nasr al-Qamoudi, a coastguard commander.
Several survivors, brought back to a naval base in Tripoli, said there were originally about 70 people on the boat when it set off near Khoms, east of the capital. A coastguard statement later said “at least 90-100” migrants were missing.
Two other migrant boats were found off Zawiya, west of Tripoli.
A Nigerian woman on board the boat that sank, Zainab Abdesalam, told Reuters the migrants had waited several hours to be rescued and survivors were extremely weak.
“I feel so disappointed because I could not make it to where I want to go,” she said, sobbing. “I feel so disappointed and I don’t want to go to prison.”
Libya is the most common departure point for migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa by sea. More than 600,000 have crossed the central Mediterranean in the past four years, generally travelling in flimsy inflatable craft provided by smugglers that often break down or puncture.
Under heavy pressure from Italy, some Libyan armed factions have blocked smuggling since last summer. Libya’s Italian-backed coastguard has stepped up interceptions, returning migrants to Libya where they are detained and often re-enter smuggling networks.
There has been a surge in attempted crossings in recent days, with dozens of migrants feared to have drowned over the weekend.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates 2,832 migrants died last year trying to reach Italy from North Africa, down from 4,581 in 2016. Some 119,310 people made it alive to Italy in 2017 against 181,436 the year before.