At least 70 migrants drowned when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off the Tunisian coast after they had left Libya hoping to reach Europe, reports suggest.
It was one the deadliest shipwrecks involving migrants trying to reach Europe illegally this year.
The UN’s International Organisation for Migration said the sunken boat took to the sea from neighbouring Libya, where renewed warfare between rival factions has gripped the capital Tripoli in the past five weeks.
It put the number of victims at 50, with 16 survivors.
But the state-run Tunis Afrique Presse agency gave a death toll of at least 70 people.
The boat sank 40 miles off the coast of Sfax, south of the capital Tunis, the Tunisian agency said.
Fishing boats were said to have scrambled to rescue the survivors.
The Tunisian Defence Ministry said the boat had left from the Libyan port of Zouara on Thursday aiming to reach Italy.
Navy units have recovered only three bodies so far, it said in a statement.
‘Another tragedy in the Mediterranean,’ the IOM said.
Libya’s western coast is a main departure point for migrants from across Africa hoping to reach Europe by paying human traffickers.
But numbers have dropped due to an Italian-led effort to disrupt smuggling networks and support the Libyan coast guard.
Earlier today, UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said the UN had repeatedly voiced its concerns about the lack of boats to pick up migrants and refugees fleeing from ‘the horrendous and horrible situation’ in Libya.
It called on governments to step in.
The Italian government appeared to answer the call today, as Interior Minister Matteo Salvini let a charity boat carrying 30 rescued migrants dock at an Italian port.
But he said the vessel would be impounded and not let out to sea again.
The migrants, including two pregnant women, a baby and four unaccompanied minors, were picked up by the Mare Jonio yesterday, some 40 miles off the coast of Libya as their rubber boat was sinking.
The Italian government has repeatedly accused charity rescuers of being complicit with people smugglers – who charge large sums to help migrants get to Europe – and Salvini has closed the country’s ports to their boats.
NGOs deny the accusation, but most of them have stopped sailing in the central Mediterranean given the uncompromising position of the Italian government and repeated investigations by magistrates.
However, the Mare Jonio, which is operated by the Italian charity Mediterranea, has so far defied the pressure and it was briefly impounded in March in Lampedusa after bringing dozens of migrants ashore.
Salvini said yesterday it would not be allowed to dock with the latest rescued group, but he changed tack today, apparently after being told that the vessel would be seized.
‘The last voyage for the boat … Mare Jonio. Blocked and seized. Bye bye,’ Salvini wrote on Twitter.
The boat’s head of mission, Beppe Caccia, said police had boarded the Mare Jonio, but had not told him they were planning to detain it. He denied any wrongdoing and shrugged off the threat of legal action.
‘We operated in full respect of the law,’ Caccia said in a video message posted on la Repubblica newspaper website.
‘The smiles of the child we saved yesterday will make any legal problems worth it.’
NGOs say Italy’s closed-port policy has made crossings much more dangerous, with very few charities out looking to save lives.
New migrant arrivals to Italy have plummeted since Salvini took office last June, with 873 migrants coming to shore so far this year, according to official data, down 91 percent on the same period in 2018 and down 98 percent on 2017.
Unusually, the Italian navy also took part in a rescue mission yesterday, picking up some 36 migrants from a sinking boat off Libya.
They were brought to Sicily today after France, Malta, Luxembourg and Germany agreed to take them in.
Although the fighting in Libya has made the situation more difficult for people-trafficking rackets, international aid officials have warned that it could also prompt more Libyans to flee their country.
It was not immediately known from which countries the migrants involved in today’s tragedy were from.
Libya’s navy also said today it had rescued a number of migrants.
It said it saved 213 Europe-bound African and Arab migrants off the Mediterranean coast.
The navy released a statement online on today saying its coast guard came to the aid of two rubber boats that had sailed separately on May 8.
One of the two boats was carrying 88 men, 12 women and seven children.
The second boat carried the remaining 106.
The statement says the migrants – nationals of several Arab and African countries – were handed over to Libya’s police after having received humanitarian and medical aid.
Libya became a major conduit for African migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe after the uprising that toppled and killed Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Libyan authorities have stepped up efforts to stem the flow of migrants, with European assistance.
According to the IOM, 2,297 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean last year out of a total of 116,959 people who reached Europe by sea.
Some 117 migrants who left Libya in a rubber dinghy in January went missing and most remain unaccounted for, according to the IOM.