Ship 'with 600 people aboard' sinks as refugees flee from Libya

A ship carrying up to 600 migrants has sunk off the coast of Libya, witnesses have reported, in what would be one of the worst accidents to have befallen refugees fleeing recent unrest in North Africa, if confirmed.

Accounts of the accident, at the end of last week, are only now beginning to emerge. At least 16 bodies, including those of two babies, were recovered from the stricken ship after they washed ashore, the United Nations Refugee Agency has said. It is feared hundreds more could be dead.

Thousands of refugees have attempted to escape fierce fighting in Libya and ongoing unrest in Tunisia for Europe in recent months, leading to overcrowding on boats that are often unsafe.

Witnesses on a second boat said the vessel broke up shortly after departing from a port near the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and gave accounts of bodies floating in the sea, according to the UN. Many of those on the second boat, which later landed in Italy, had relatives on the sinking ship and some said they refused to board after seeing the boat hit trouble, but were forced on to the second ship by Libyan soldiers.

The UN said it had no information regarding the nationality of those on the vessel, but said that many of those waiting in Italy were Somali. The agency added that it was unclear if anyone had mounted a rescue mission, but said that Nato was not involved in any search.

The refugee ship is one of dozens that have attempted the journey to Europe since the uprising in Libya descended into a protracted civil conflict. There is no official tally of how many refugees – most of them workers from sub-Saharan Africa – have attempted the journey from Libya across the Mediterranean, although 10,000 are thought to have reached Italy since mid-February.

The UN believes that at least three boats that left Libya for Italy in late March never made it to their destination, disappearing at sea. The agency alerted the Italian Coast Guard that they were on their way but the boats never arrived. "There's been no way of charting for sure how many boats have left, how many people never made it. Some of them we will never know about," Jemini Pandya, of the International Organisation of Migration, another aid agency, told the Associated Press.

Nato has denied that it ignored a vessel in distress carrying African migrants from Libya in late March, leading to the deaths of 62 passengers starvation and dehydration.

Shortly after running into difficulties at sea, the passengers made contact by satellite telephone with an Italian priest, and asked for help. A military helicopter with "Army" written on it later arrived and dropped water and biscuits, signalling to the vessel to stay put, before presumably heading off to fetch help, The Guardian newspaper reported. Help failed to arrive, and none of the Nato allies has admitted sending the helicopter.

At one point, the boat, which had run out of fuel, drifted close to an aircraft carrier, according to survivor accounts, and two jets flew low overhead while passengers stood on deck and raised two babies aloft.

The newspaper suggested that the carrier may have been the ship Charles de Gaulle, which it said was in the vicinity on the date in question. The French have denied the claim. The boat, which was unable to get any closer to the carrier, drifted for 16 days and only 10 of its passengers survived.

International maritime law requires that anyone, including the military, that spots a vessel in distress must go to its aid where possible. Nato said that the only carrier in the area at the time was the Italian ship Garibaldi, and that was 100 nautical miles out to sea.

"Therefore any claims that a Nato aircraft carrier spotted then ignored the vessel in distress are wrong," said Carmen Romero, a spokeswoman for the alliance.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk