- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009

TRIPOLI, LIBYA (AP) - Vessels carrying hundreds of migrants capsized off the coast of Libya in separate incidents over the last two days and more than 300 people were believed to have drowned, an international migration group said Tuesday.

The International Organization for Migration said Libyan officials reported between one and three ships had sunk in Libyan waters Monday and Sunday. The group confirmed the information with diplomatic sources, spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said.

He said strong winds could have caused the vessels to capsize.

IOM believes the migrants were trying to cross from North Africa to Italy in search of a better life in Europe.

According to the group’s figures, some 33,000 people crossed from North Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa alone in 2008. Many of the boats are not seaworthy and deadly accidents are frequent.

Some of the survivors managed to reach the shores of Italy while others have been intercepted and returned to Libya, said Laurence Hart, an IOM official in the northern African country.

“Rescue operations are ongoing,” Hart told The Associated Press over the phone from the Libyan capital, Tripoli. He said the number of missing ranges between 300 to 500 people but that an exact causality figure has not been confirmed.

“It all took place in the past 36 hours. Some of the migrants have arrived on the Italian coast,” he said. “We have a very high number of landings. We have a number of causalities. We have a number of people intercepted and returned to Libya.”

“We are not sure what happened. These people who drowned might have been victims of the bad weather, or they might have been overcrowded” on the boats, Hart added.

He said that the sea in that part of the Mediterranean saw strong winds and stormy seas in the past three days.

Earlier Tuesday, Egypt’s state news agency MENA reported that 36 Egyptian have been rescued from a capsized boat off the coast of Libya. The report gave no time of the capsizing.

MENA said the Egyptians were among about 350 other migrants of different nationalities aboard a boat heading to Europe. The news agency gave no other figures or fatalities.

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