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Desperate journey often ends in death for Africans

Bids to reach Europe stray way off course

SAN JUAN -- They left Africa on Christmas Eve seeking a better life in Europe. Instead, the migrants' rusty boat drifted off course and carried them to their deaths as it crossed the Atlantic and wound up near the Caribbean islands of Barbados.

By the time a fisherman found the boat on April 30, the bodies of 11 young men were virtually mummified by the sun and salt spray. One had written a farewell note before dying.

``I would like to send to my family in Bassada [Senegal] a sum of money. Please excuse me and goodbye," one of the victims wrote in a note tucked between bodies.

The note appeared to be written by a Senegalese man named Diao Souncar Dieme, and contained the contact numbers for his brother and for his best friend, Barbados's attorney general, Dale Marshall, said Wednesday.

With transit routes to Europe through Morocco becoming gradually sealed, migrants are taking to the seas farther down the coast of northwest Africa, some traveling in overcrowded fishing boats more than 1,000 miles in stages to reach Europe.

The boats often get lost or break down, drifting helplessly in the Atlantic or capsizing in rough seas. Typically, canoe-shaped boats built to carry six to eight people on a fishing trip are crammed with dozens of people and supplies for the voyage north.

The boat found off the coast of Barbados apparently left Senegal on Africa's west coast with 52 people aboard, Marshall said.

``This is the end of my life in this big Moroccan sea," the disoriented passenger wrote. His boat was not off the coast of Morocco; it had drifted more than 2,000 miles west.

The white, 20-foot boat, streaked with rust and capped by a small wheelhouse, was apparently bound for Spain's Canary Islands, a gateway to Europe located in the Atlantic about 200 miles off Morocco's southern coast.

Spanish authorities have launched two investigations into the tragedy, police said. The first was begun by Interior Ministry police in Barcelona after a complaint was filed by El-Haji Sano, a Senegal-born resident of that city whose brother Malang was believed to have been on the boat. Another investigation is underway on the Canary Islands, police said, adding that they have asked Interpol for help.

Authorities on the Canary Islands say they have intercepted nearly 7,000 migrants since January, up from 4,751 in all of 2005. More than 1,000 are believed to have perished attempting the journey since December, according to the Red Cross in Mauritania, a favored departure point.

The northwest African coastline is notoriously hard to police for illegal migrants. Family ties spill across borders drawn across the western edge of the Sahara Desert by 19th-century European colonials. Mauritanian authorities say they believe that about 14,000 people from other West African countries are living in the city of Nouadhibou as they wait to go to Spain.

As for the boat found off Barbados, it is unclear where many of the passengers were from, though officials presume they were Senegalese, Marshall said. Police found currency in euros, a travel itinerary, and an airline ticket from Senegal Airways on the boat.

Barbados authorities said the names Ibrahima Dieme and Omar Badje were in the goodbye note.

Spanish police have asked Interpol to help find a Spaniard in the Canary Islands who allegedly organized the trip and charged the migrants $1,540 to $1,930 each, the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported Sunday.

A Barbados funeral home is holding the 11 bodies. ``The issue is really trying to identify who these individuals are," Marshall said.

An Interpol team has examined the boat and the bodies. Barbados has asked for a second team to investigate further, Marshall said.

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