In this October 21, 2016 picture provided by Sea-Watch aid group, refugees sit in a inflatable boat off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea. (By AP)
Nearly 100 refugees are feared dead after their unseaworthy vessel sustained damage and sank following departure from the Libyan coast.
A spokesman for the Libyan navy said on Thursday that a total of 126 refugees were aboard the ill-fated rubber boat.
“They were on an inflatable dinghy, which tore and filled up with water,” added General Ayoub Qassem.
He further said the coast guard rescued 29 survivors, adding that most of those rescued were African nationals.
Qassem quoted a survivor as telling his rescuers that the boat had set off with 126 migrants on boat from Garabulli, 70 kilometers east of Tripoli, and went down battered by high waves.
The coast guard reportedly received an SOS signal at around 15:00 local time.
Qassem added that three women and a child were among the 97 missing.
The United Nations says the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa
to Europe has claimed more than 3,800 lives so far this year.
On Wednesday, French aid group, Doctors without Borders (MSF), said it had found the bodies of 29 asylum-seekers who perished in a pool of fuel and seawater on a crowded dinghy off Libya
, probably from suffocation, skin burns or drowning.
This image taken in the southern Mediterranean shows the coffins of asylum-seekers drowned at sea, on October 24, 2016. (By AFP)
In another development on Thursday, the EU said it had begun training the Libyan coast guard how to curb the influx of asylum seekers.
“Today we are starting the training of the Libyan coast guard in Operation Sophia which is a very important step,” EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said as she arrived for a meeting with NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg also said the Western military alliance had just launched its own Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean to help support Operation Sophia.
“Today we will discuss how to deepen NATO-EU cooperation and partnership further … including in areas of countering hybrid threats, cyber defense, exercises,” he added.
The EU launched Operation Sophia last year after hundreds of asylum seekers died when their rickety boats sank off southern Italy, sparking popular outrage at their plight.
The central Mediterranean route has seen more asylum seekers risk their lives in recent months after the EU reached an accord with Turkey in March to halt an influx of refugees crossing the Aegean to reach Europe.
Stoltenberg further said within two weeks ships and aircraft will be provided by NATO allies to help back up the EU’s Operation Sophia.
A separate NATO mission in the Aegean will, meanwhile, continue, at least until the end of the year, German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen said.
However, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said Ankara no longer saw a need for NATO forces in the Aegean.
“This was a temporary mission, and the goal has been reached in this temporary mission. There is no need to extend it further,” Isik told reporters in Brussels on Thursday.