Migrants drown off Tunisia

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At least 50 migrants drowned when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off the Tunisian coast after they left Libya hoping to reach Europe, the United Nations migration agency said.

The state-run Tunis Afrique Presse agency gave a death toll of at least 70.

It was one the deadliest shipwrecks involving migrants trying to reach Europe illegally this year.

The UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said the sunken boat took to sea from neighbouring Libya, where renewed warfare between rival factions gripped Tripoli over the past five weeks. It put the number of victims at 50, with 16 survivors.

The boat sank 40 miles off the coast of Sfax, south of Tunis, the Tunisian agency said. Fishing boats rescued survivors, it said.

The Tunisian Defence Ministry said the boat left the Libyan port Zouara on Thursday aiming to reach Italy. Navy units recovered three bodies so far, it said in a statement.

“Another tragedy in the Mediterranean,” the IOM said.

Libya’s western coast is a major departure point for African migrants hoping to reach Europe by paying human traffickers, though numbers dropped due to an Italian-led effort to disrupt smuggling networks and support the Libyan coast guard.

On Friday, UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said the United Nations repeatedly voiced concerns about the lack of boats to pick up migrants and refugees fleeing from “the horrendous and horrible situation” in Libya. It called on governments to step in.

Although fighting in Libya has made the situation more difficult for people-trafficking, international aid officials warn it could prompt more Libyans to flee.

It was not immediately known from which countries the migrants involved in Friday’s tragedy were from.

According to the IOM, 2,297 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean last year out of a total of 116,959 people who reached Europe by sea.