About 30 migrants were missing and presumed drowned after the overcrowded boat they were on capsized during a rescue attempt by a cargo ship off Libya, the Italian coast guard said on Sunday.
Seventeen migrants were saved, and a search was underway for the missing after the early-morning attempted rescue in Libya’s search-and-rescue zone, the coast guard said.
“During the rescue operations ... the boat capsized during the transfer of the migrants: 17 people were rescued and recovered by the [cargo] vessel, while approximately 30 migrants were missing,” it said.
On Sunday, three more bodies were found from a Feb. 26 shipwreck just offshore the Italian peninsula, raising the known death toll in that disaster to 79 migrants, Italian state television reported.
A wooden boat that had sailed from Turkey ran into a sandbank in rough seas off a beach in Calabria, the toe of the Italian Peninsula.
That shipwreck has put Italy’s right-wing government led by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on the defensive as it tries to fend off sharp criticism that it failed to intervene in time to save the migrants.
Intelligence reports indicate that about 700,000 migrants are in Libya awaiting an opportunity to set out by sea toward Italy, an Italian lawmaker said on Sunday, but a UN migration official said the number was not credible.
The Italian secret services estimated that 685,000 migrants in Libya, many of them in detention camps, were eager to sail across the Mediterranean Sea in smugglers’ boats, Brothers of Italy party whip Tommaso Foti told television channel Tgcom24.
Stressing that the latest capsizing happened outside Italy’s area of search-and-rescue responsibility, the Italian coast guard said several other merchant vessels were looking for the boat’s missing passengers.
The humanitarian group Alarm Phone signaled to the Italian National Coordination Centers and to Libyan and Maltese authorities on Saturday that the boat with 47 people on board needed assistance.
Libyan authorities, citing “lack of naval assets availability,” contacted the Rome-based maritime aid coordination center, which sent a satellite message about an emergency to all ships in the area, the Italian coast guard said.
It said the commercial motorboat that carried the 17 survivors was headed for Italy, but would first stop in Malta to disembark two people in urgent need of medical care.
A spokesperson for the Libyan coast guard did not respond to a request for comment
Meloni is hoping an EU meeting later this month could yield solidarity from fellow leaders of EU nations in managing the large numbers of migrants and asylumseekers who come to countries on the Mediterranean’s rim, including Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Spain.
“Europe can’t look the other way,” Foti said.
While the intelligence services assessment sparked alarming headlines in Italy, the International Organization for Migration said that the figure appeared to be confusing the high end of the estimated number of migrants in Libya with those who were actually seeking to head to Europe.
“This number seems to be an estimate, that we also give, of the total presence in Libya,” International Organization for Migration spokesperson Flavio di Giacomo said.
However, of that number “only a minimum part want to leave and only a minimum part succeeds in leaving” for Europe, Di Giacomo said.
About 105,000 migrants reached Italy by sea last year.
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