A boat believed to be carrying people from Haiti has capsized near the British overseas territory of the Turks and Caicos Islands. The vessel had been intercepted by a marine police unit and was being towed to shore.
Eighteen suspected illegal migrants from Haiti drowned in the early hours of Wednesday morning when their boat capsized.
A marine unit of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force had intercepted the crowded boat and was towing it ashore when it overturned, turning the operation into a dawn search and rescue. Authorities rescued 32 people from the water, recovered 18 dead bodies, and said they did not believe many people remained unaccounted for.
"Police are still searching for the handful of people who reached shore and fled the scene, and their investigations into the incident continue," the government of the British overseas territory said in a statement.
The sailboat went under off the Providenciales island to the west of the small island chain.
The government of the island group, located around 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Haiti, also said that a US Coast Guard helicopter was "scrambled to assist the TCI authorities in locating any additional bodies."
Police officials told the Associated Press news agency that the migrants had paid between $500 and $1,000 (365-700 euros) to be on board the vessel. According to CIA World Factbook estimates, the average annual income for a Haitian cititzen is $1,200.
Police spokesman Audley Astwood said investigators were yet to identify the captain or suspected human smugglers among the survivors: "Right now, the focus of our operation is search and rescue, trying to save as many lives as possible," he said.
The cause of the vessel sinking was not immediately clear, although the Haitian consul to the islands, Karlo Pelissier, said he was told by survivors that several people jumped off near the shore, unsettling the small boat.
Migrants from Haiti, one of the world's poorest nations and the victim of a major earthquake in January of 2010, often undertake perilous journeys by sea hoping to reach the Bahamas or the United States. Last month, an estimated 30 people drowned in the southern Bahamas when a boat overturned, while there were similar fatal boat accidents off the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2009 and 2007.
msh/tj (AFP, AP)