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U.S. Coast Guard recovers 4 more bodies off Florida coast in search for missing migrants

The U.S. Coast Guard said it suspended its rescue operations at sunset Thursday after announcing earlier that afternoon that it had found four additional bodies in its search for dozens of migrants lost at sea off Florida.

Rescue operations suspended; dozens still missing

The U.S. Coast Guard station in Fort Pierce, Fla., is seen Wednesday. Authorities suspended rescue efforts Thursday night, five days after a vessel carrying migrants capsized off the coast of Florida on its way from the Bahamas. Five bodies have been found so far. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

The U.S. Coast Guard said it suspended its rescue operations at sunset Thursday after announcing earlier that afternoon that it had found four additional bodies in its search for dozens of migrants lost at sea off Florida.

Officials with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) have said they were actively investigating the case as a human smuggling operation.

Authorities have found a total of five bodies, leaving 34 missing five days after the vessel capsized on the way to Florida from Bimini, a chain of islands in the Bahamas about 88 kilometres east of Miami.

Coast guard Capt. Jo-Ann F. Burdian said earlier the decision to suspend the search at sunset Thursday, pending any new discoveries, was not an easy one.

"We have saturated the area over and over again," she said. "We've had good visibility ... we've overflown the vessel a number of times ... It does mean we don't think it's likely that anyone else has survived."

Investigation continues

The Miami office of HSI has launched an inquiry, saying the migrants' journey was most certainly part of a human smuggling operation. Under federal law, a smuggler convicted of causing a death is eligible for execution.

"The goal of this investigation is to identify, arrest and prosecute any criminal or criminal organization that organized, facilitated or profited from this doomed venture," said HSI Miami special agent in charge Anthony Salisbury.

Salisbury declined to give any information on the nationalities of the boat passengers but said investigators consider the lone survivor "a victim right now," not a suspect. Salisbury appealed to the public for tips to help identify who organized the boat crossing.

"Please help us bring criminals who prey on and victimize the vulnerable migrant community to justice," he said. "We don't want anybody doing this again … This is dangerous stuff."

The lone survivor was found hanging onto the seven-metre boat on Tuesday about 64 kilometres off Fort Pierce, Fla. He told a Good Samaritan and authorities that the boat capsized late Saturday after he and 39 others had set out for Florida.

Authorities said the boat was found about 160 kilometres north of where it capsized, apparently pushed north by the Gulf Stream, a warm, swift current that wraps around the Florida peninsula and flows along the Atlantic Coast of the United States. No one was wearing a life jacket, the rescued man told authorities.

The Gulf Stream can be treacherous even on a calm, sunny day. Throw in an overloaded boat, inexperienced mariners, stormy weather and the dark of night, and they can become deadly.

A small-craft advisory had been issued on Saturday and Sunday as a severe cold front, with winds up to 37 km/h, blew through the dangerous passage, creating swells up to three metres high. 

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