Skip to main content

At least 28 migrants dead off Libya coast

Over 1,000 refugees were stacked on a wooden boat, says an AFP photographer, while 4,655 people were rescued
Hundreds of thousands have been rescued but at least 11,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean in the past three years (AFP)

Twenty-eight Europe-bound migrants were found dead on a day of frantic rescues off Libya on Tuesday, including at least 22 in an overloaded wooden boat, an AFP photographer and the Italian coastguard said.

The Italian coastguard - which is coordinating rescue efforts in international waters north of Libya - said 28 bodies had been recovered over the course of 33 operations on Tuesday, while 4,655 people had been rescued.

"It was a wooden vessel and there were about 1,000 people on three levels. I counted 22 bodies and there are still others in the hold," photographer Aris Messinis, who was able to go on board the vessel, said by telephone.

Messinis was travelling on the Astral, a ship chartered by Spanish NGO ProActiva Open Arms, which rescues migrants at sea.

In mid-afternoon, Astral rescuers moved back to allow the Italian navy to take care of the survivors and retrieve the bodies, the photographer said.

The Astral was left alone to deal with the overloaded boat for several hours, aided only by lifeboats dropped by a Spanish military plane until the navy arrived at midday.

"There was panic onboard, there were people jumping into the water," Messinis said.

The Astral's rescue operations had begun before dawn and lasted until nightfall.

Italy's coastguard said nine corpses were recovered in operations in which 6,055 people were rescued off Libya on Monday, three years to the day after 366 people died in the sinking incident that first alerted the world to the Mediterranean migrant crisis.

In a poignant reminder of the ongoing drama being played out on Europe's southern shores, the coastguard coordinated the rescue of a total of 39 distressed vessels, the bulk of them overcrowded rubber dinghies but also including five converted fishing boats crammed full of people, mostly Africans.

Just under 200 minors were among those saved from one of the former fishing boats which had some 720 people on board, according to NGO SOS Mediterranee.

The disaster resulted in Italy's navy launching a large-scale search and rescue operation that has since evolved into a multinational effort involving groups like MSF and Save the Children.

Hundreds of thousands have been rescued but at least 11,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean in the past three years, according to figures collected by the UN.