ABOARD THE ASTRAL, ITALY, Oct 5 – Twenty-eight Europe-bound migrants were found dead on a day of frantic rescues off Libya on Tuesday, including at least 22 in an overloaded wooden boat, an AFP photographer and the Italian coastguard said.
The photographer, who was able to go aboard the vessel, said it appeared that many of the dead had suffocated.
He said there were about 1,000 people on three levels. He counted 22 bodies and said there were more dead in the hold.
The Italian coastguard — which is coordinating rescue efforts in international waters north of Libya — said 28 bodies had been recovered over the course of 33 operations on Tuesday, while 4,655 migrants had been rescued.
The photographer was travelling on the Astral, a ship chartered by Spanish NGO ProActiva Open Arms, which rescues migrants at sea.
Late on Tuesday, the Italian navy took over helping survivors and retrieving bodies, the photographer said.
It was yet another day of drama at sea after more than 6,000 migrants, most of them Africans in packed rubber dinghies, were rescued off Libya on Monday. Nine bodies were found in those operations, including a pregnant woman.
– ‘Panic onboard’ –
With numerous rescue boats en route to Italy to unload the huge human cargo collected on Monday, the Astral was left alone to deal with the overloaded wooden boat for several hours.
It was aided only by lifeboats dropped by a Spanish military plane until the navy arrived at midday.
There was panic onboard, with people jumping into the water, according to the photographer.
The Astral’s rescue operations had begun before dawn and lasted until nightfall.
The latest people to be rescued will add to a total of some 132,000 migrants who have landed at Italy’s southern ports so far this year, fleeing conflict, poverty or persecution and hoping to start new lives in Europe.
The new arrivals are mostly Africans who plan to try to get to northern Europe but increasingly are obliged to seek asylum or the right to remain in Italy, where reception centres have been strained to bursting point.