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Hopes fade for 150 Libya boat people lost at sea

07 april 2011, 17:19
Hopes faded on Thursday for some 150 African refugees fleeing Libya whose boat capsized in the middle of the Mediterranean in stormy weather, a day after 53 survivors were plucked from the sea, AFP reports.

"We are still searching for 150 people. The hope of finding other survivors is fading by the hour," Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said in parliament.

Italian and Maltese coast guard vessels and planes, as well as two commercial vessels, were taking part in the high-seas rescue operation.

"The rescue operation is being made more difficult by the ongoing storm... We've not been collecting the bodies because of the rough sea," said Vittorio Alessandro, a spokesman for the coast guard on the island of Lampedusa.

Alessandro said that 20 corpses had been spotted in the area on Wednesday, while helicopter pilots who flew over the scene of the accident said they had seen "dozens" of bodies near the boat including small children.

The 13-metre (42-foot) boat got into trouble in the early hours of Wednesday amid three-metre high waves some 40 nautical miles (46 miles, 74 kilometres) south of Lampedusa in waters that are formally under Maltese jurisdiction.

"Our hope is of finding a survivor, maybe someone who held on to a piece of the wreckage," said Pietro Carosia, head of the coast guard in Lampedusa, where more than 20,000 mostly Tunisian migrants have landed in recent weeks.

The Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration estimated some 300 people were on the boat and more than 200 people were therefore missing.

The Italian coast guard put the number at closer to 200 and said 20 bodies had been spotted so far, putting the number of missing at around 130.

"Yesterday's tragedy shows departures from Libya's coast are intensifying. These are all people from sub-Saharan Africa fleeing from places where there are wars and where humanitarian conditions are terrible ," Maroni said.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sent his condolences to victims' relatives and US actress Angelina Jolie, a goodwill ambassador for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, said she was "greatly saddened" by the accident.

"We have urgently to find solutions to guarantee a safe corridor to civilians fleeing the fighting in Libya," she said in a statement.

Television images on Wednesday showed shaken-looking survivors wrapped in thermal blankets being helped off coast guard boats on Lampedusa.

Some, including a heavily pregnant woman, were taken to hospital.

The coast guard said in a statement that the boat had departed from the town of Zuwarah in western Libya near the border with Tunisia. The statement said the people on the boat were mostly Eritreans and Somalis.

Hundreds of African refugees from Libya -- many of them migrant workers stranded after the start of an uprising against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi and the beginnings of a civil war -- have landed in Italy in recent days.

According to Maroni, more than 25,000 mostly Tunisian migrants have landed in Italy so far this year on 390 boats -- an exodus of economic migrants and refugees fleeing unrest which sparked a humanitarian emergency in Lampedusa.

Migrants and refugees often travel in rickety and overcrowded wooden fishing boats and there have already been recently smaller accidents at sea.

Harrowed survivors have spoken of being crammed into barely sea-worthy boats, accompanied part of the way by traffickers who then abandon them with scant drinking water and a satellite phone to call for help in rough seas.

While the majority of boats are rescued or towed inshore by Italian authorities, several have been sighted on the horizon by coast guard surveillance planes, only to mysteriously disappear again, their fate unknown.

In the last month and a half, 68 refugees have been reported missing in Libyan waters and another 35 in Tunisian waters, Lampedusa's coast guard said.

In 2003, hundreds of Tunisians and other African and Asian immigrants drowned while attempting to make the perilous journey in tumultuous seas.

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