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Up to 80 dead in shipwreck off Libya: EU naval force

As 80 are feared drowned on Thursday, investigators report that death toll in wreck off Libyan coast jumps to 100
People wave for help from the boat which capsized off Libya on Thursday (Twitter/@EUNAVFORMED_OHQ)

Up to 80 people are feared dead after a shipwreck off Libya, while at least 50 refugees and migrants have been rescued from the waves, the EU's naval force said on Thursday.

The wreck comes during a week in which more than 6,000 migrants and refugees have been rescued by Libyan, Italian and other authorities off the coast of Libya.

It also comes a day after a boat carrying more than 500 people also capsized off the coast of Libya during which at least 100 people are now thought to have drowned.

Earlier, it was reported that that wreck had left five people dead, but on Thursday, the International Organization for Migration said survivors told the agency that there were 100 passengers who had been in the boat's hull now missing and feared drowned.

IOM spokesman in Italy Flavio Di Giacomo said survivors said that 650 people, mostly Moroccans but also including many Tunisians and two Syrian families who had been living in Libya, had been aboard their boat.

The shipwreck on Thursday was spotted by a Luxembourg reconnaissance plane around 64km off the Libyan coast with about 100 refugees and migrants in the water or clinging to the sinking vessel, captain Antonello de Renzis Sonnino, spokesman for the EU's Sophia military operation to combat people smugglers in the Mediterranean, told AFP.

The Spanish frigate Reina Sofia and Italian coast guard raced to the scene and threw life-floats and jackets to those in the water.

"Unfortunately, there were bodies too," de Renzis Sonnino said, adding that the rescue operation was still ongoing.

In photographs released by EUNAVFOR MED on Twitter people could be seen waving their arms for help as they balance perilously on the deck of the boat, already underwater but clearly visible in the limpid aquamarine sea.

The shipwreck followed sharply on the heels of a disaster on Wednesday which is now believed to have left 100 drowned, and another sinking on Tuesday which left a baby girl orphaned after both her parents died.

Video footage of the incident on Wednesday released by the Italian navy showed people toppling into the sea as the overcrowded vessel capsized.

A bout of good weather as summer arrives has kicked off a fresh stream of boats attempting to cross from Libya to Italy.

The survivors will be added to the list of nearly 40,000 migrants and refugees to arrive in the country's southern ports so far this year.

The overwhelming majority of those arriving in Italy so far this year have been from sub-Saharan Africa and officials have said that there is no sign of refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East starting to use the Libyan route to Europe after moves the restrict access from Turkey via the Greek islands. 

However, the Guardian's migrant correspondent Patrick Kingsley reported that an activist had told him that he had spoken to a "boat of Syrians" on Thursday morning.