Scores of refugees fleeing Libya drown near Italian Island

SCORES of people are missing at sea after a tiny boat carrying more than 200 African migrants fleeing Libya capsized in 3m waves, officials said.

Coast guard spokesman Vittorio Alessandro said 50 survivors had been rescued and a helicopter crew aiding the high-seas rescue operation had spotted some 20 bodies near the boat, which capsized early today.

“We are still hoping. Our boats and helicopters have thrown all sorts of lifejackets and lifeboats to allow people to hold on,” Alessandro said.  Around 130 people who were on the 13m boat are believed to be missing, while a fishing boat in the area rescued three more survivors.  The island state of Malta said it was helping to co-ordinate rescue efforts.

Helicopter pilots quoted by Italian news agency ANSA said they had seen “dozens” of corpses in the area including those of small children.  “We hoped one of them would raise their arm. But no-one did,” one said.  Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told reporters he would be visiting the island on Saturday and sent his condolences to victims’ relatives.

“The government and I are personally following the tragedy with sorrow and emotion,” he said. “We are talking about desperate people, who had faced the dangers of the crossing in order to reach our coasts and better their lives.”

Shaken-looking survivors wrapped in thermal blankets were helped off a coast guard boat on Lampedusa, television images showed. Some, including a heavily pregnant woman, were immediately taken to hospital in ambulances.

“The bad weather started at about six pm yesterday… Our boat broke apart. We fell into the water. It was hell. There was water in my mouth but I managed to stay afloat,” ANSA quoted a 29-year-old Cameroonian, Peter Ugo, as saying.

Michele Prosperi from the charity Save the Children who has been helping the thousands of migrants arriving on the island, said: “They were in very, very, very difficult conditions. They were all suffering from hypothermia.”

Prosperi said there was one unaccompanied minor and they were all being put up in a former US base on Lampedusa, which is nearer North Africa than mainland Italy and is a gateway for illegal immigration into Europe.

The International Organisation for Migration, based in Geneva, said it estimated some 300 people were on the boat which capsized and sank in the early hours of the morning and that more than 250 were therefore missing.

“The survivors are all in a state of shock. One man told me he had lost his one-year-old son. One of the two surviving women told me how she had lost her husband,” said the IOM’s Simona Moscarelli, who is in Lampedusa.

The coast guard said in a statement that the boat had departed two days ago from the town of Zuwarah in western Libya near the border with Tunisia. The statement said the people on the boat were mostly Eritreans and Somalis.

Hundreds of African refugees from Libya – many of them migrant workers stranded after the start of an uprising against Libyan leader Moamer Gaddafi and the beginnings of a civil war – have landed in Italy in recent days.

Angelina Jolie, Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR), who had just returned from a humanitarian mission in Tunisia, said she was “greatly saddened.”

“We have urgently to find solutions to guarantee a safe corridor to civilians fleeing the fighting in Libya,” she said, according to a UNHCR statement that quoted her in Italian translation.

More than 20,000 migrants fleeing continuing unrest in Tunisia have also arrived on Lampedusa in recent weeks, sparking a humanitarian emergency.  Migrants and refugees often travel in rickety and overcrowded wooden fishing boats and there have already been recently smaller accidents at sea.

The accident happened about 74km south of Lampedusa in waters that are under the jurisdiction of Malta.  Because of the storm and the panic on board, “the boat capsized and the passengers were thrown into the sea,” Alessandro said.

“The darkness and weather conditions made the search for the missing people difficult but it is still continuing,” he said.

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