- 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.

Italy has been pressing Libya to crack down on illegal immigration, including with joint Libyan-Italian patrols against the thousands who try to cross the Mediterranean each year. Rome says that many of the illegal African immigrants who arrive in Italy transit through Libya.

Laurence Hart, an IOM official in the northern African country said rescue operations were ongoing and that some survivors managed to reach Italian shores while others were intercepted and returned to Libya.

“It all took place in the past 36 hours,” Hart told The Associated Press over the phone from the Libyan capital, Tripoli. “We are not sure what happened. These people who drowned might have been victims of the bad weather, or they might have been overcrowded.”

Hart said there were between 300 to 500 people missing but that an exact casualty figure has not been confirmed. That part of the Mediterranean saw strong winds and stormy seas in the past three days, he added.

Cosimo Nicastro of the Italian Port Authority said no Italian military or coast guard were involved in the rescue efforts because the capsizing occurred in Libyan waters. He said the Italians are waiting for information from Libyan authorities and were also looking into reports that an Italian merchant ship might have been at the site and helped with rescue efforts.

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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