250 on leaking boat disappear

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The Independent Online
They packed themselves like sardines on to a leaky sailboat and headed for the land of opportunity. But the 250 or so hungry and desperate Haitians, including 40 children, may have drowned within their own country's shark- infested waters.

Hampered by Tropical Storm Marco, US Coastguard cutters searched yesterday for the 63ft motorised sailboat L'Ange Gabriel, missing almost three weeks after leaving for Florida. With the storm closing in, the chances of finding the refugees alive were slim.

They were among thousands of Haitians who flee on rickety, unseaworthy boats each year, driven by near-starvation and lured by relatives with jobs in Miami. Even last year, despite the presence in Haiti of US troops who came to restore democracy, the US Coastguard intercepted almost 2,000 boat people at sea and dumped them at Port-au-Prince.

That figure suggests several thousand others probably made it to Florida, forced to swim ashore at night while their unlit craft turned for home to avoid detection. Thousands more may have been either swept to other Caribbean islands or drowned when the overcrowded boats sank.

Even when boats make it, they are often minus victims of dehydration who are "buried at sea". Witnesses speak of voodoo sacrifices of passengers, based on the drawing of straws, when boats show signs of sinking.

In the Haitian port of Petit-Goave, once a hideaway for celebrities such as Mick Jagger, police prevented angry relatives from lynching the man who organised the latest trip and from burning down his house.

Relatives said the boat, usually for shipping charcoal, had set off on 2 November with about 250 people on board. Word got back from the Haitian island of Gonave that they passed through and may have jammed more passengers aboard. The fare was about pounds 100, half a year's pay for the few who had jobs.

"The boat was already leaking. They left without repairing it," Maxo Dibi, a relative of several missing passengers, said.