162 bodies retrieved after migrant boat capsizes off Egypt

2016-09-23 19:37
Migrants aboard a dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea wait to be rescued. (File, Bram Janssen, AP)

Migrants aboard a dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea wait to be rescued. (File, Bram Janssen, AP)

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Rosetta — The bodies of 162 people had been pulled from the waters off the Egyptian coast by Friday, two days after a boat carrying hundreds of migrants capsized in the Mediterranean while attempting to head to Europe.

Dozens more are feared dead, said Mohammed Sultan, the governor of Beheira, who provided the latest death toll. He also said that the search operation is still ongoing. Many of them are believed to be children and women who were unable to swim away when the boat sank.

An AP reporter near the Nile Delta city of Rosetta saw between 20 to 30 bodies brought in by coast guards in grey inflatable boats and fishermen in wooden boats early on Friday morning and delivered to ambulances at the coast guard pier. Pictures posted on social networking sites showed dozens of bodies lined up in black plastic bags, and others floating near wooden fishing boats. Videos showed that some fishermen were using nets to bring up the bodies.

In one video, a fisherman was heard shouting into his mobile phone that, "the sea is littered with bodies".

Many of those gathered at the shore where the bodies arrived appeared to be wearing surgical masks to protect them from the smell of decaying bodies. Some brought chunks of ice to be placed on the bodies to prevent them from decomposing.

Authorities have struggled to give accurate figures for the number of people on board the capsized vessel. The boat was located nearly 12km from the Nile Delta port city of Rosetta when it sank. It had waited at sea for many hours — perhaps days — for smaller wooden boats carrying migrants to arrive from different points along the Egyptian coastline.

Survivors said that overcrowding caused the boat to capsize.

The head of the local council in the area, Ali Abdel-Sattar, said that the currents have carried the bodies of the victims many kilometres away from the site of the sinking. "Today, four bodies, including two Egyptian children, were found 20km to the east," he said.

He added that many of the migrants are believed to have been "stored in the bottom of the boat, in the fridge".

"Those are the ones who drowned first, most probably stuck, and their bodies might not be retrieved anytime soon," he said, adding, "those we found are the ones liberated from the boat. I believe many are stuck and now laying in the bottom of the sea". He said the boat may now have sunk to 16m below sea level.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimated that the boat was packed with some 450 people, while the state news agency MENA said earlier that the number might be as high as 600.

Egyptian officials said that over 160 people were rescued and that the majority are Egyptians, while the others are Sudanese and other nationalities, including Somalians and Eritreans.

The EU border agency, Frontex, recently said more than 12 000 migrants arrived in Italy from Egypt between January and September this year, compared to 7 000 in the same period last year. Yet UNHCR says that since 2014 there has been a steady increase in the number of people intercepted while trying to leave Egypt, with 4 600 people arrested this year, a 28% increase compared to the previous year.

On Thursday, four people described as members of the vessel's crew were arrested over charges of human trafficking and manslaughter.

At a small pier called el-Borg, hundreds of families had gathered on Friday, hoping to identify the bodies of their loved ones. Women screamed and relatives pushed and shoved while swarming the ambulances heading to the hospital.

Fishermen said that they had difficulty collecting the badly decomposed bodies, with one saying, "we didn't know how to pull them out".

Read more on:    unhcr  |  migrants

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