Dozens missing after boat sinks off Libya
Rescuers conduct a search operation in the Mediterranean sea off the Libyan coast on Thursday. The Libyan coast guard said 97 migrants are missing and believed drowned. Bernat Armangue / Associatedpress
TRIPOLI - At least 97 migrants were missing on Thursday after their boat sank off the coast of Libya, a navy spokesman said.
According to survivors, the missing include 15 women and five children, said General Ayoub Qassem.
He said the Libyan coast guard had rescued a further 23 migrants of various African nationalities just under 10 kilometers off the coast of Tripoli.
The boat's hull was completely destroyed and the survivors, all men, were found clinging to a flotation device, he said.
Those who had disappeared were "probably dead", but bad weather had so far prevented the recovery of their bodies, Qassem added.
A witness said survivors had been given food and medical care at Tripoli before being transferred to a migrant center east of the capital.
Six years since the unrest that toppled Muammar Gadhafi, Libya has become a key departure point for migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
Hailing mainly from sub-Saharan countries, most of the migrants board boats operated by human traffickers in Libya, and make for the Italian island of Lampedusa 300 km away.
Since the beginning of this year, at least 590 migrants have died or gone missing along the Libyan coast, the International Organization for Migration said in late March.
In the absence of an army or regular police force in Libya, several militias act as coast guards but are often accused of complicity or even involvement in the lucrative human smuggling business.
More than 24,000 migrants arrived in Italy from Libya during the first three months of the year, up from 18,000 during the same period last year, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.