Hundreds feared dead as boats sink off Libyan coast

Libya Hundreds of migrants sailing for Italy were feared dead last night after two boats packed with more than 600 people sank in the Mediterranean.

In the first of two separate incidents off the Libyan coast, a boat carrying 253 people sank. Some 21 bodies were found, but the rest remained unaccounted for. After the second boat sank, Libyan coastguards rescued 23 people but a further 342 passengers were missing.

Both boats had sunk in the past few days and another two were believed to be drifting offshore, coastguards said. "Rescue and search operation are continuing," an officer said. It was not clear whether any of the boats had sailed from Libya.

Libya, a favourite departure point for illegal immigrants hoping to get into southern Europe, signed a new accord with Italy in February to strengthen efforts to stem the flow. Every year hundreds of thousands of Africans arrive in Libya, taking odd jobs until they have earned enough for a place on a smuggler's boat to Europe.

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