Up to 240 migrants are feared dead after two boats capsized while bound for Italy, the UN refugee agency said, citing survivor accounts. Early information suggests most of the refugees hailed from sub-Saharan Africa.
Rescuers retrieved a total of 31 survivors and brought them to the Italian island of Lampedusa after their rubber dinghies capsized in heavy seas, the UNHCR said on Thursday.
The officials also managed to retrieve 12 bodies, including three babies, who traveled on one of the boats. The group of 29 survivors at the scene told the UN representatives that some 120 people had sailed with them from Libya.
Rescuers also found two women swimming at sea on the same day. The two survivors said that another 120 people drowned after their boat capsized, UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said.
"They told us they were on a faulty dinghy which began to sink as soon as they set sail. They were the only survivors," Sami said.
In both cases, the presumed victims were believed to be migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, Sami said, adding that aid workers were still gathering information.
Arrivals spike in October
Should the number of victims be confirmed, the latest shipwrecks would bring the Mediterranean death toll to 4,220 since the beginning of the year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) which works closely with the UNHCR. The casualties have already surpassed last year's toll of 3,777. The virtual closure of routes over land through the Balkans this year has forced those seeking a life in Europe to take the more deadly Mediterranean route.
The IOM noted a surge of migrant arrivals in October, possibly over the rumor spread by the people smugglers that Libya's coastguard would soon take over the rescue mission currently led by EU navies. Migrants therefore fear that any rescued travelers would be taken to Libyan territory in future, according to the organization's spokesman Flavio di Giacomo.
Some 158,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year, Giacomo said.
Also on Thursday, Gambia's soccer federation said they believed their women's national team goalkeeper Fatim Jawara may have died while trying to cross from Libya to Italy. The athlete's cousin, Ablie Jobarteh, confirmed the information to the dpa news agency. The family was informed by the smuggler whom the 19-year old goalkeeper paid to get her to Europe, the cousin said.
dj/msh (AP, Reuters, AFP)