Dozens more feared dead in Egypt migrant boat tragedy

2016-09-22 17:45
(File, AP)

(File, AP)

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Rosetta - Dozens of migrants were feared dead on Thursday after their overloaded fishing boat capsized off Egypt's Mediterranean coast, as authorities arrested four suspected traffickers following the tragedy that killed at least 42 people.

The latest in a string of disasters to hit those undertaking the perilous sea crossing to Europe saw hundreds of mainly African migrants thrown into the sea on Wednesday about 12 km from the Egyptian city of Rosetta.

More than 150 people have been rescued but 42 migrants were confirmed to have died so far.

Rescuers said search operations would focus on the boat's cold storage room where witnesses said around 100 people sought refuge as the vessel flipped over.

"The death toll is going to rise," a medical source told AFP. "On the boat there is a hold used to store fish. It hasn't been opened and there must be a lot of people inside."

Many survivors in police custody 

The deadly accident comes months after the EU's border agency Frontex warned that growing numbers of migrants bound for Europe were turning to Egypt as a departure point for the dangerous sea journey.

Traffickers often overload the boats, some of them scarcely seaworthy, with passengers who have paid for the crossing.

On a beach near Rosetta on Thursday, a small crowd gathered with some reading verses from the Koran and others desperately seeking information on relatives who may have been on board.

The military said in a statement that 163 passengers had been rescued so far, adding that they had stopped another boat elsewhere on the Mediterranean coast carrying 294 migrants.

Many survivors were in police custody early Thursday. A prosecution official said they would be treated like "victims and not perpetrators" and would be released.

Witnesses spoke of the harrowing moment their vessel, carrying up to 450 people, keeled over due to overcrowding, as well as the agonising hours-long wait for help to arrive.

"There was 200 of us and the boat was already full, 200 more then arrived. The boat tilted to the side then began to sink," said Ahmed Mohamed, a 27-year-old Egyptian.

"It was like the apocalypse. Everyone tried to get out alive. I swam for 10 kilometres."

 Four detained 

A municipal official in Rosetta told AFP that Wednesday's victims included one child, 10 women and 31 young men.

Ali Abdel Sattar said that Egyptians, Eritreans, Sudanese and Syrians were on board the vessel, which had been bound for Italy.

"I just wanted to reach Europe and live a decent life," said survivor Ahmed Gamal, 17.

Judicial and security officials said on Thursday that four alleged smugglers had been detained over the capsizing, accused of involuntary manslaughter and human trafficking.

More than 10 000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean for Europe since 2014, according to the United Nations.

Asylum-seekers have been seeking other ways to reach Europe since March, when Balkan countries closed the popular overland route and the EU agreed a deal with Turkey to halt departures.

Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri said in June that Egypt was becoming a "departure country" for migrants.

More than 300 000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year from various points of departure, the UN said this week.

The number is down from 520 000 in the first nine months of 2015.

But despite the lower numbers attempting the dangerous sea crossing, fatality rates had risen, with 2016 on track to be "the deadliest year on record in the Mediterranean Sea," said the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

The European Union launched "Operation Sophia" last year to destroy smuggler boats that could be used to ferry migrants across the sea.

An EU official told AFP this month that almost 300 smuggler boats had been put out of commission in the past year.

Read more on:    un  |  eu  |  syria  |  sudan  |  egypt  |  italy  |  north africa  |  immigrants

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