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160 still missing in Tunisia immigrant boat tragedy
Agence France-Presse, PTI
Sfax (Tunisia), June 23, 2003
First Published: 11:31 IST(23/6/2003)
Last Updated: 11:31 IST(23/6/2003)

Tunisian rescuers on Sunday trawled the Mediterranean waters where some 50 bodies have been recovered after the sinking of a boat full of would-be immigrants from Africa, but hope was dwindling for the 160 others still missing.

The coast guard said four patrol boats were deployed near the Tunisian port of Sfax, where a Libyan trawler overloaded with some 250 passengers capsized overnight Thursday en route for Italy.

But violent winds and stormy seas, kicked up since Saturday, have whittled down almost all chance of finding more people alive.

Among the craft's 41 survivors -- who are from Mali, Ghana, Liberia, Somalia, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia -- several have described paying Libyan smugglers for their passage, and the journey from Libya aboard a decrepit and overcrowded boat.

Four Somalis said they had travelled through Libya, a country that has become a key transit point for clandestine immigrants from sub-Saharan and north Africa who require no entry visas there.

Mohamed, 18, said he had expected an open-arm welcome in Italy -- a country he saw as a future paradise compared with Somalia, where, he said, more than three decades of war had made life unbearable.

"We all paid our smugglers in Libya between 500 and 800 dollars (430-690 euros)," said 28-year-old Aboubakar of Mali. "There were a lot of us in the boat, which was in bad condition."

The boat sank some 60 nautical miles off the Tunisian coast, between Kerkennah and Djerba islands. The alarm was first raised when the small fishing port of Mahdia near Sfax received a radio distress signal at dawn Friday from the skipper of a fishing vessel from Sfax.

Another survivor, Abdeljelil, 24, of Morocco said that "cracks appeared in the boat and it began to take on water."

"We managed to seal them, but soon more appeared and the boat capsized at 1:00 am (midnight Thursday GMT) Friday morning" some seven hours after setting off, he told AFP.

Abdeljelil said some of the survivors had to swim for five hours before Tunisian naval craft picked them up.

Tunisia, because of its proximity to the Italian coast, has become a favored crossing point into Europe, although many clandestine immigrants also go via Morocco to Spain.

In a recent upswing in immigration attempts in the region, another boat bound for Italy and carrying 28 people was intercepted Friday further south along Tunisia's east coast. Late Thursday a makeshift boat carrying 24 Africans from a "neighboring country" -- again likely Libya -- was stopped off Tunisia's Djerba island.

Local people in Sfax told AFP they often found the dead bodies of clandestine immigrants washed up on nearby shores.

They said only three people had survived when another boat carrying 74 clandestine immigrants sank not far from Sfax recently.

The Italian authorities have accused Libya of being the point of departure for boats ferrying immigrants across the Mediterranean to Italy's shores. A week ago a boat that had sailed from Libya with 70 Africans aboard sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa, claiming at least seven lives.

The Tunisian authorities have sought to clamp down on illegal immigration to Europe and usually send back to Libya all clandestine migrants who come from there.

In early June, a Tunisian woman was sentenced to 22 years and eight months in prison for swindling her compatriots in clandestine immigration schemes.

Tunisia and Italy have agreed to cooperate closely in the fight against people trafficking, and have signed accords allowing quotas of migrant workers to enter Italy.

A Tunisian coast guard told AFP about a Ghanaian woman he had stopped three times on board inflatable dinghies or trawlers from Libya.

Every single time she was sent back to Libya," he said. "Then I was surprised to see her in a report on Italian television: she had obviously made it in the end!"


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