200 feared dead after boat capsizes off Libya
ZUWARA, Libya // Libyan authorities were on Friday collecting the bodies of migrants who drowned off the coastal city of Zuwara, with some 200 feared dead in the latest disaster involving desperate people trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean.
Workers removed bodies from the water, and pulled a flooded boat into the harbour that contained several drowned victims floating face down. At least one victim, a man, was wearing a life vest. They were put into body bags and lined up on the waterfront.
Hussein Asheini, the head of Libya’s Red Crescent in Zuwara, said at least 105 people were dead – some killed while trapped inside the boat after it capsized. Fishermen and the coastguard found the waterlogged vessel at sea and towed it back to Zuwara, where they had to break the ship’s deck to reach people trapped inside.
“The boat sank out at sea, and a coastguard team is still diving in and checking inside to see if there’s anyone else,” he said. There were conflicting casualty figures and the Red Crescent was still counting the bodies and the survivors, he added.
In a statement, the United Nations refugee agency said that up to 200 people were missing and feared dead after the Libyan coastguard carried out rescue operations on Thursday for two boats carrying an estimated 500 migrants.
Meanwhile, Austrian police on Friday raised the number of migrants found dead and decomposing in an abandoned lorry on a motorway to 71.
In a particularly horrifying tragedy in Europe’s unrelenting migrant crisis, Austrian authorities said the bodies found in the lorry were likely Syrians and included a toddler and three young boys.
“Among these 71 people, there were 59 men, eight women and four children including a young girl, one or two years old, and three boys aged eight, nine or 10,” police spokesman Hans Peter Doskozil said.
Hungarian police said they had arrested three Bulgarians – the owner of the Hungarian-plated vehicle and two drivers, according to Austrian police – and an Afghan, and had raided several addresses and confiscated items.
Mr Doskozil said Syrian travel documents were found in the 7.5-tonne refrigerated lorry found on Thursday near the Hungarian and Slovakian borders, suggesting that the group were “likely” Syrians.
Also on Friday, prosecutors in Sicily detained 10 people on suspicion of smuggling and murder for having allegedly crammed dozens of migrants into the airless hold of a boat where 52 bodies were found this week.
The Swedish ship Poseidon had rescued 439 survivors on Wednesday but crew members made a grisly discovery when they looked into the hold. The rescuers ended up smashing the deck to reach the 52 corpses inside.
Carmine Mosca, head of the Palermo police squad, said on Friday that survivors who came ashore on Thursday told authorities how the smugglers would beat the migrants back with knives if they tried to come out of the hold for air.
“When theses migrants tried to relay their need for air and water, they were mishandled, injured, knifed in a truly fierce way,” Ms Mosca said.
Palermo prosecutor Maurizio Scalia said the detained crew included seven Moroccans, two Syrians and a Libyan who was the “violent” enforcer of order on the ship.
Officials believe the cause of death was likely asphyxiation: Mr Scalia said the hold of the 20-metre boat contained about 60 people, was only about a metre high, with two small windows and the boat’s engine.
He said murder charges, rather than manslaughter, were warranted since the smugglers “eventually accepted the risk that these people, in these conditions, could die.”
Dozens of boats are launched from lawless Libya each week, with Italy and Greece bearing the brunt of the surge of migrants.
Two Libyans accused of human smuggling were arrested in Zuwara on Thursday, a security official in the town said.
Human smuggling of people fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa from Libya has spiked, as smugglers take advantage of turmoil in the country to use it as a staging ground for departures to Europe in rickety, overcrowded boats.
Since the 2011 overthrow and killing of Muammar Qaddafi, the country has plunged into chaos. It is divided between an elected parliament and internationally recognised government based in the eastern port city of Tobruk and a militia-backed government in the capital Tripoli. ISIL militants are also exploiting the chaos.
“As a result of Libya’s armed conflict, stopping the ‘death boats’ cannot be done only by Libya. There must be an international effort to curb this issue,” said Mohamed Al Misrati, the spokesman for the Red Crescent in Libya.
* Associated Press, Agence France-Presse
Updated: August 29, 2015 04:00 AM