Hundreds are feared dead after a ship carrying a reported 600 refugees fleeing Libya broke up off the coast of the North African country Friday, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
A spokeswoman told the Associated Press on Monday that the agency was still trying to confirm the fate of the passengers. Witnesses on another boat in the area reported seeing debris from the boat and bodies floating in the sea.
The agency said that at least three other boats that departed Libya in recent months with passengers fleeing the ongoing violence in their home country never arrived at their European destinations.
The number of people fleeing North Africa has soared since the mid-January, after Tunisia overthrew its longtime dictator and set off a series of uprisings and protests in Egypt and Libya. The AP estimates that since then 25,000 people, mostly Tunisians, have flooded the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which is close to the North African coast.
Many of those fleeing Libya are foreign workers from sub-Sahara Africa, who in the first weeks of the war were mistaken for mercenaries funded by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and attacked by Libyan rebels.
Separately, NATO is denying reports that more than 60 African migrants were left to die in the Mediterranean after their boat ran into trouble last month. The vessel drifted in the open sea for more than two weeks and nearly all on board died from thirst and hunger, despite being spotted by a NATO ship, the Guardian reported Sunday.
NATO’s statement, via the BBC:
Only one aircraft carrier was under NATO command on those dates, the Italian ship Garibaldi. Throughout the period in question, the Garibaldi was operating over 100 nautical miles out to sea. Therefore, any claims that a NATO aircraft carrier spotted and then ignored the vessel in distress are wrong.