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Up to 200 feared dead as migrant boats sink off Libyan coast

Published 28/08/2015

A sunken boat carrying migrants is pulled in to the port Zuwara, Libya. (AP)
A sunken boat carrying migrants is pulled in to the port Zuwara, Libya. (AP)

Around 200 migrants are feared dead as authorities collect the bodies of victims who drowned off the Libyan coastal city of Zuwara.

Workers removed bodies from the water and pulled a flooded boat into the harbour that contained several drowned victims floating face down. At least one victim, a man, was wearing a life vest. They were put into body bags and lined up on the waterfront.

The United Nations refugee agency said up to 200 people were missing and feared dead, after the Libyan coastguard carried out rescue operations for two boats carrying an estimated 500 migrants.

Dozens of boats are launched from Libya each week, with Italy and Greece bearing the brunt of the surge.

Since a 2011 civil war that ended with the overthrow and killing of long-time dictator Muammar Gadhafi, the oil-rich north African country has been plunged into chaos.

It is divided between an elected parliament and government based in the eastern port city of Tobruk and an Islamist militia-backed government in the capital Tripoli - with militants from the Islamic State group also exploiting the chaos.

Othman Belbeisi, chief of mission for the International Organisation for Migration for Libya, said: "We are still waiting for more details, but we have learned there were 400 people on one of two boats."

He said 100 were rescued, including nine women and two girls.

In a separate rescue operation by the Libyan coastguard on Wednesday, the UN refugee agency said 51 people died of suffocation in the hold of a boat, with survivors recounting how smugglers beat them with sticks to keep them under the deck.

It said one survivor described how smugglers forced passengers into the packed hold and were demanding money to allow them to come up to breathe fresh air.

Hussein Asheini, the head of Libya's Red Crescent in Zuwara, said at least 105 people were killed, some while trapped inside the boat after it capsized.

Fishermen and the coastguard found the waterlogged vessel at sea and towed it back to Zuwara, where they had to break the ship's deck to reach people trapped inside.

"The boat sank out sea, and a coastguard team is still diving in and checking inside to see if there's anyone else," he said.

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