Ship carrying 600 refugees sinks off Libya, UN reports

Witness accounts can’t confirm fate of the passengers

By Colleen Barry
Associated Press / May 10, 2011

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MILAN — An overcrowded ship carrying up to 600 people trying to flee Libya sank just outside the port of Tripoli, the UN refugee agency said yesterday, citing witness accounts.

Aid officials were still trying to confirm the fate of passengers after the vessel broke apart Friday in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, said Laura Boldrini, UNHCR spokeswoman.

Witnesses who left the Libyan capital on another boat shortly afterward reported seeing remnants of the sunken ship and the bodies of some passengers floating in the sea, she said.

Other witnesses saw passengers swimming to shore, but it was unclear how many survived, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Its staff on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa interviewed a Somali woman who said she lost her 4-month-old baby in the sinking.

The woman swam to shore and managed to board another boat heading to Italy, the agency said in a statement yesterday.

A Libyan government spokesman in Tripoli had no comment about the sunken refugee ship.

At least three other boats that left Libya in late March have disappeared, with hundreds feared dead, Boldrini said.

The number of people fleeing North Africa has soared since mid-January, after Tunisia overthrew its longtime dictator and set off a series of uprisings in Egypt and Libya.

Some 25,000 people, mostly Tunisians, have flooded Lampedusa, which is right off the North African coast.

Since fighting began in Libya in mid-February, the International Organization for Migration estimates that 10,000 more people have reached Lampedusa or the neighboring island of Linosa from Libya — including almost 2,000 who arrived on five boats last weekend.

Many of those fleeing Libya are foreign workers from sub-Saharan Africa, who in the first weeks of the war were mistaken for mercenaries funded by Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy and were attacked by Libyan rebels.

On the deadlocked front line in eastern Libya yesterday, rebels continued to battle Khadafy’s forces and welcomed the first supply ship in five days to reach the besieged western port city of Misurata.

Heavy fighting was reported south of Ajdabiya, a rebel-held town about 90 miles south of Benghazi, the rebel headquarters in the east.

Rebels also reported gaining ground outside Misurata, where they broke through one of the front lines and were consolidating their positions yesterday.

And overnight, NATO warplanes struck at least four sites in Tripoli, setting off crackling explosions that thundered through the Libyan capital.

Hundreds of rebels had gathered at a checkpoint outside Ajdabiya yesterday afternoon. About 100 pickup trucks came back from the front, each carrying four or five fighters and some with mounted submachine guns.

The rebels, firing their weapons into the air as they shouted and danced, said they had been told that NATO was going to launch airstrikes on Khadafy’s forces and they had been ordered to withdraw temporarily.

No overall casualty figures were available.

The rebel army — made up of some deserters from Khadafy’s forces and many civilians — has been bogged down for weeks around Ajdabiya, unable to move on to the oil town of Brega. The rebels say their weapons cannot reach more than about 12 miles, while Khadafy’s forces can fire rockets and shells up to twice that distance.

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