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Shipwreck off Libyan shores: up to 500 feared dead

Three boats capsized in very high winds, carrying hundreds of people, many of them Egyptians. 21 bodies recovered.

TRIPOLI Libya. 31 March 2009. Hundreds lost at sea off the shores of Libya, victims of the latest migration tragedy.

Reports from Tripoli officials early in the morning said 21 bodies and 23 survivors had been recovered from the three boats that shipwrecked Monday in the Mediterranean, not far from the coast. One boat was carrying a reported 253 people and another had 365 on board.

"It seems the three boats were overloaded and sank in storm-strength winds," said IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy, who estimated that at least 300 people were missing.

The boat operators aimed to “cram as many people in as possible” with “no respect for the safety and dignity of these people”, he told reporters in Geneva.

“There was no safety equipment on board, they were overloaded and too far from the coast to reach it by swimming”, he added.

Laurence Hart, of the IOM in Tripoli, fears the death toll could be as high as 500, as IOM has evidence of many migrant boats leaving Libya in the past two days.

A fourth boat, with 350 migrants, has been towed back to safety by the Italian tugboat Asso 22, who normally assists oil tankers off the Libyan coasts. The alarm went on Saturday evening and the joint Italian and Libyan rescue was completed Sunday afternoon, with all passengers safe.

“This is the beginning of the smuggling season in the Mediterranean,” UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmon said, noting that the “tragic incident” highlighted the dangers facing so-called irregular migrants.

The UN’s High Commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, has expressed deep sorrow, “This is the latest tragic example of a global phenomenon in which desperate people take desperate measures to escape conflict, persecution and poverty in search of a better life”.

“This incident emphasizes the need to increase international cooperation for sea rescues”, he added.

It has not however set back the voyages of despair towards Italy: more than 400 migrants have landed in the last few hours on the Eastern coasts of Sicily, after the 222 landed Monday in Lampedusa.

“The landings will be over after May 15th”, said Minister of Interiors Roberto Maroni, “when the agreement signed by the Italian and Libyan governments on the joint patrolling of the coastlines will come into effect”.

Hundreds of migrants have died in the last few months crossing the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to Europe, and the Gulf of Aden from Somalia to Yemen.

They are at the mercy of unscrupulous smugglers, unseaworthy vessels and the elements but many take these risks for the lure of a better life.

The smuggling season normally stops in October, and resumes again in April.

But the IOM says there has been no lull this year and the smuggling boats have been sailing right through the winter.

Routes of human smuggling below.

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