At least 162 bodies pulled from Mediterranean after Egypt boat disaster
At least 162 bodies of migrants have been pulled out of the water off the Egyptian coast after hundreds drowned when their overcrowded boat capsized.
Egypt's state news agency MENA quoted Wahdan el-Sayyed, spokesman for the Nile Delta province of Beheira, as saying that the search operation is continuing for more bodies.
The migrants' boat capsized on Wednesday, nearly 7.5 miles from the Nile Delta port city of Rosetta. Many of the dead are women and children who were unable to swim away when the boat sank in the Mediterranean.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that the boat was packed with 450 people, while MENA said earlier that the number might be as high as 600.
"UNHCR is deeply saddened by the loss of life after yet another boat capsized in the Mediterranean," the UN refugee agency said in a statement.
Of the 150 people rescued, UNHCR said the majority are Egyptians, Sudanese and other nationalities including Somalians and Eritreans. Four people described as smugglers were arrested on Thursday and authorities are investigating.
Egypt has been a traditional route of migrants to Europe by sea, but since 2014, UNHCR said, there has been a steady increase in the number being intercepted while trying to leave.
EU border agency Frontex recently said more than 12,000 migrants arrived in Italy from Egypt between January and September, compared with 7,000 in the same period last year.
More than 4,600 people of different nationalities were arrested this year, UNCHR said, a 28% increase on last year.
At a small pier called el-Borg, hundreds of families gathered hoping to identify the bodies of their loved ones. Women screamed, and relatives pushed and shoved while swarming the ambulances heading to hospital.
Fishermen said they had difficulty collecting the badly decomposed bodies, with one saying: "We didn't know how to pull them."
The intense smell of decay filled the air and many covered their faces with masks.
Survivors and relatives said the boat sank nearly eight miles from the Egyptian coast and it took the coastguard around six hours to reach the scene. Fishing boats in the vicinity were the first to provide help.
The head of the local council in the area, Ali Abdel-Sattar, said water currents have carried bodies many miles from the site of the sinking. "Today, four bodies, including two Egyptian children, were found 20 kilometers to the east," he said.
He added that many of the migrants are believed to have been "stored in the bottom of the boat, in the fridge".
"Those are the ones who drowned first, most probably stuck, and their bodies might not be retrieved any time soon," he said, adding: "Those we found are the ones liberated from the boat. I believe many are stuck and now laying in the bottom of the sea."
He said the boat may have sunk more than 50ft below sea level.
The UN's migration monitor said the death toll among people trying to reach Europe by the Mediterranean this year has passed 3,500 and is "rapidly approaching" the record level set last year.
The International Organisation for Migration said more than 300,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean this year, mostly arriving in Greece and Italy.
More than a million crossed in all of 2015, but the rate of deaths is far higher this year.
The IOM has been recalculating its estimates of deaths in the Mediterranean last year, but believes that at least 3,675 people died.