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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

More than 100 feared dead near Tunisia in Mediterranean crossing attempt

Tunisia says 48 bodies recovered off its southern coast with 68 people rescued

People wait to receive the bodies of loved ones in the Tunisian town of Sfax on June 4, 2018 after more than 50 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean on the previous day, the majority off the coasts of Tunisia and Turkey. Tunisians and migrants regularly try to cross the Mediterranean to seek a better future in Europe, with 120 mainly Tunisians rescued by their navy in March after trying to reach Italy. / AFP / Sofiene HAMDAOUI
People wait to receive the bodies of loved ones in the Tunisian town of Sfax on June 4, 2018 after more than 50 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean on the previous day, the majority off the coasts of Tunisia and Turkey. Tunisians and migrants regularly try to cross the Mediterranean to seek a better future in Europe, with 120 mainly Tunisians rescued by their navy in March after trying to reach Italy. / AFP / Sofiene HAMDAOUI

Tunisia's navy scoured choppy waters on Monday for survivors and victims of the Mediterranean's worst shipwreck in months, with the UN migration agency warning more than 100 people may have been killed.

A total of 68 survivors were rescued Sunday off the coast of Sfax in southern Tunisia, while 48 bodies were recovered according to Tunisia's defence ministry.

A survivor said the captain had abandoned the boat after it started sinking to escape arrest by the coast guard.

"I survived by clinging to wood for nine hours," he said at a hospital in the southern city of Sfax where dozens of people gathered to look for survivors and identify dead relatives.

Another survivor said that more than 180 people had been crammed onto the boat - double its capacity - when it started taking on water.

"The search operation restarted at 4:00 GMT with the help of nine navy units, one helicopter and divers," Mohammed Salah Sagaama, commander of Sfax's naval base, told AFP.

"Up until 10:00 GMT, no more bodies have been recovered," he added, saying the search efforts were hampered by strong winds and limited visibility.

So far 10 Tunisians have been identified among the victims and 14 people from other African nations.

Tunisia, like other North African nations, is a gateway for migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

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In March, 120 mainly Tunisian migrants were rescued by the navy trying to reach Italy.

A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration on Monday said the death toll from the latest disaster could more than double.

"According to updated info, the shipwreck off the Tunisian coasts may have caused over 110 deaths: 48 bodies recovered, maybe about 64 missing," Flavio di Giacomo wrote on Twitter.

The figure confirmed by Tunisian authorities already makes the shipwreck the deadliest in the Mediterranean since February 2, when 90 people drowned off the coast of Libya, according to the IOM.

Separately, nine people including six children died on Sunday after a speedboat carrying 15 refugees sank off the coast of Turkey's southern province of Antalya, the Turkish coast guard said in a statement.

Spanish maritime rescue meanwhile said one person was reported drowned, while 240 migrants were rescued over the weekend.

More than 650 people have been recorded as dead or missing in the Mediterranean so far this year, while at least 33,270 have survived the crossing to Europe.

Reducing the flow of migrants into Italy is one of the aims of the anti-immigrant League party in Italy and its leader Matteo Salvini who was sworn in as the country's new interior minister on Friday.

Salvini and his party have promised to block the arrival of boat migrants from Africa and to deport up to 100,000 illegal immigrants per year.

"The objective is to save lives. And this is done by preventing the departures of the boats of death that are a business for some and a disgrace for the rest of the world," Salvini said in a statement, commenting on both the incidents.

"I will work to ensure that all the international organisations commit to stop departures, landings and deaths."

As of May 30, 32,080 people had reached Europe by sea so far this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on its website. Some 660 had died attempting the crossing, it said.