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Tunisia coastguard accused of sinking vessel

Tunisia, Feb 15 –  Eight Tunisian migrants who attempted to cross by sea to Italy accused Tunisia\’s coast guard of having rammed their boat, killing five people and leaving 30 missing.

Survivors told AFP that the Tunisian coast guard ship had "rammed" their boat and split it in half Friday as it carried 120 people as part of a wave of migrants making their way from Tunisia to Italy.

Eleven families who lost relatives in the incident have said they will file a legal complaint Tuesday against the crew of the "Liberte 302" boat involved in the incident.

"The boat… was carrying 120 passengers, 85 people were saved, five died and 30 are still missing," said one of the survivors, 23-year-old Ziad Ben Abdaalah.

 His statements were confirmed by seven other survivors, who had each paid 2,000 dinars ($1,400, 1,000 euros) for the attempted trip.

Ben Abdaalah said the migrants\’ boat had left from Tunisia\’s tourist zone of El-Ogla, near Zarzis, 500 kilometres (310 miles) from the capital Tunis.

"It was 3:00 pm. The weather was good. We were approaching the Italian coast after 12 hours on board, and we were no more than an hour from Italy, when the National Guard boat gave us the order to stop our engines," he said.

Though the migrants obeyed, Ben Abdallah said the coast guard boat then charged at them suddenly.

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"We heard the guards saying \’lower your heads\’ and then they rammed us and broke the boat in two," he added.

Shortly after the incident, the survivors said they had seen an Italian helicopter flying above them and then another Tunisian coastguard boat arrived on the scene.

"At this point, the coast guards acted like they wanted to help us," said Ben Abdaalah.

 But he added: "When I managed to get on board their boat, one of the coastguards told me to get back in the water to save my friends."

Another survivor, 21-year-old Fares Ben Yahyaten, denounced what he called the neglect of those who had escaped drowning.

They had been left soaking on the boat and were given nothing but a bit of bread to eat.

The army subsequently intervened, taking the survivors to a military base in the Tunisian port of Sfax, where they were given food and blankets, said another survivor, 26-year-old Aziz Bousetta.

They were also fingerprinted and photographed and questioned about the coast guard.

 Coast guard officials in Zarzis reached by AFP confirmed that a sinking had taken place but blamed it on the poor condition of the migrants\’ boat and refused any further comment.

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According to Ben Abdaalah, the boat was a brand new vessel.

"We want to know why this Tunisia boat broke this boat in two," said Nabil Ragdal, one of the relatives taking legal action.

"We want those guilty to be tried, because people are dead and we want to know why they did what they did."

He showed an AFP correspondent a document authorising the burial of his brother Lasaad, whose body was retrieved off the coast of Sfax.

The document cited the head of the coast guard at Sfax, listing the cause of death as drowning and noting the opening of an investigation for homicide.

"We are going all the way. Those responsible must be tried for murder," he added.

Ragdal said his brother had been trying to get to France to see his wife, who he had not seen since 2004 and had only resorted to travelling on the boat after having been repeatedly refused a visa by the embassy.

More than 2,000 undocumented Tunisian immigrants have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa following the North African country\’s popular uprising are now being lodged in a reopened reception centre.

The centre, which has a capacity of 800 people, was reopened on Sunday to cope with the massive wave of arrivals from Tunisia following the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

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Some 5,000 Tunisians have arrived on Lampedusa in the last week, and authorities have been transferring them to other reception centres on the mainland to avoid overcrowding on the tiny island.

Earlier Monday, Italy\’s foreign minister said Tunisia and Italy share a common interest in curbing the wave of immigration.


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