World

600 believed dead in Libya refugee boat sinking

Almost everyone on an overcrowded ship carrying some 600 African migrants to Europe is believed to have died when the vessel broke apart within sight of the Libyan capital, the United Nations said Tuesday.

UN accuses Libyan government of complicity in increased deadly smuggling incidents

The UN says almost all of the estimated 600 African migrants who were on board an overcrowded ship that sank off the Libyan coast are believed to have died. Migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa, such as these men who arrived in the port city of Benghazi from Misrata on May 5, have fled fierce fighting in the Libyan conflict via the Mediterranean Sea. ((Mohammed Salem/Reuters))

Almost everyone on an overcrowded ship carrying some 600 African migrants to Europe is believed to have died when the vessel broke apart within sight of the Libyan capital, the United Nations said Tuesday.

The UN accused the Libyan government of complicity in a rising number of deadly smuggling incidents, many involving workers from sub-Saharan Africa who had moved to Libya to find work before war broke out there in March.

International agencies say some recent migrants report being forced onto dangerously packed ships at gunpoint by Libyan soldiers.

A spokesman for Moammar Gadhafi suggested that increased illegal immigration was the price European nations would pay for their military and political support of the rebels trying to topple Libya's strongman.

"Because of the NATO aggression against our country and because our coastal border guard is being hit daily … we are unable to deal with this situation and that is why Europe is being flooded with illegal immigration," government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said. "We cannot be the guards of Europe at this moment."

Migrants trapped below deck

The UN painted a horrifying picture of Friday's sinking, which left migrants, many from Somalia, trapped below deck and drowning within sight of the shore of Tripoli.

"We do know that there were some survivors who did know how to swim and managed to get to the beach but we believe that there were only a few," UN refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.

She said a Somali diplomat in Tripoli told the agency that 16 bodies, including those of two babies, had been retrieved since the sinking.   

Italy and Libya struck a 2008 deal to return would-be migrants intercepted at sea to Libya without screening them first for asylum. The agreement, criticized by refugee rights groups, reduced the number of migrants arriving in Italy from 36,000 in 2008 to 4,300 in 2010.   

The UN said migrants' boats started leaving Libya for Europe again on March 25, the day NATO took over military operations. About 14,800 since have made the gruelling journey across the Mediterranean in rickety ships run by smugglers who rarely provide enough food and water.

At least 800 people had been lost at sea in three boat sinkings before the latest ship went down with 600 aboard off Tripoli on Friday, the UN said.