updated 4/2/2006 10:18:30 PM ET 2006-04-03T02:18:30

A boat packed with West Africans trying to reach Europe collided with a fishing vessel, leaving 32 of the migrants missing and believed drowned, Mauritanian officials said Sunday.

Mauritania, located in the northwest of Africa about 600 miles from Spain’s Canary Islands, has increasingly become a jumping-off point for Africans from other countries to sneak into Europe for a better life.

More than 1,000 Africans have died in the past four months trying to sail in small wooden boats to the Canary Islands, Mauritania’s Red Crescent branch has said.

In the latest ill-fated voyage, a boat with 57 Africans struck a fishing vessel Saturday as it set out from this desert country, said Commandant Sidi Ould Ahmed of Mauritania’s military police. Ahmed said the vessels collided about 20 miles off the coast.

He said 32 people were missing. The others were saved by fishing boats, said Dr. Abdallahi Ould Sidi, who treated the survivors in the capital of Nouakchott.

Spain has been helping Mauritania try to stem the tide of migrant-filled boats leaving its coast, and Spanish authorities said Sunday they were looking for another ship believed to be carrying hundreds of illegal West Africans toward the Canary Islands.

Local newspapers Canarias 7 and El Dia reported on their Web sites that the ship could be carrying more than 500 people.

On Thursday, an Interior Ministry official, Jose Segura, said Spain should brace itself for a “numerous and anarchic” increase in illegal migrations from Africa.

More than 3,000 migrants have reached the Canary Islands so far this year, the vast majority packed into narrow, open wooden boats that sometimes take weeks to make the dangerous voyages.

Mauritania does not offer the easiest route to Europe, but other countries just across the ocean from southern Europe have cracked down on illegal migrants, prompting human traffickers to step up efforts to send would-be immigrants by traditional wooden fishing canoe to the Canary Islands.

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