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Sunday 18 February 2018

At least 20 refugees dead after 4,000 rescued in single day

Migrants wait to disembark from the Italian Navy ship Bettica as it arrives at the Sicilian Porto Empedocle harbour (AP)
Migrants wait to disembark from the Italian Navy ship Bettica as it arrives at the Sicilian Porto Empedocle harbour (AP)
Migrants regularly try to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe

At least 20 refugees have died trying to reach Europe after their boat sank off the coast of Libya.

The death toll is likely to grow far higher, however, as the Libyan coast guard also reported two overturned boats between the coastal cities of Sabratha and Zwara. Only four bodies were found, raising fears that the rest of those on board had died.

More than 4,000 would-be refugees were saved in 22 separate rescue operations at sea on Thursday in one of the busiest days of the Mediterranean migrant crisis.

"That probably is a record," said coast guard spokesman Commander Cosimo Nicastro, noting that previous highs have been in the range of 5,000 to 6,000 over two days.

One five-year-old boy was airlifted from his rescue vessel to the island of Lampedusa, suffering from hypothermia, Mr Nicastro said.

At least one smugglers' boat sank off Libya's coast, and 20 bodies were spotted floating in the sea, said a spokesman for the EU's Mediterranean mission.

Photos tweeted by the mission showed a bright blue dinghy submerged under the weight of migrants waving their arms in hope of rescue as an EU aircraft flew overhead. None had a life jacket.

Two Italian coast guard ships and the Spanish frigate Reina Sofia responded to the scene. Mr Nicastro said 96 people were rescued.

Barbara Molinario, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Italy, said favourable weather conditions in May to October often encourage migrant crossings. She said prior to the recent rescues, some 40,000 people had been rescued so far this year, compared to 47,500 over the same period in 2015.

Among those coming ashore on Thursday in Sicily were the survivors of a dramatic capsizing a day earlier off Libya's coast. Footage provided by the Italian navy showed the steel-hulled smuggler ship rocked under the weight of its passengers and finally flipped, sending migrants into the water or clambering up the side.

The Italian navy vessel Bettica brought the survivors and five bodies ashore in Porto Empedocle, Sicily. Red Cross workers took at least one migrant away in a stretcher, while rescue teams in white hazmat suits carried children down the plank to shore.

In other rescues, a Libyan navy spokesman said a total of 766 migrants were rescued by the Libyan coast guard on Thursday.

Colonel Ayoub Gassim said they were found in two groups. One of 550 near the western coastal city of Sabratha and the second of 216 off Zwara.

He said two other capsized boats were found empty in waters between the two cities and only four bodies were retrieved, with the rest of those aboard feared dead. He said he had no other details, including how many migrants had been aboard the boats.

Before this week's deaths, the International Organisation for Migration said only 13 people had drowned in the month of May, compared with 95 last May and 330 in May 2014. It said the figures "indicate that migrant fatalities may at last be declining" thanks to increased coast guard monitoring along the North African coast.

However, improved weather conditions appear to have led to an increase in the number of migrants risking the crossing.

Press Association

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