updated 7/10/2008 7:03:59 AM ET 2008-07-10T11:03:59

Fifteen African migrants died of hunger, thirst or exposure as they drifted on a small, overcrowded boat bound for Spain, most of them small children, the government and the Red Cross said Thursday.

The deaths were the second tragedy this week in the saga of destitute Africans risking their lives to reach Europe’s southern gateway in search of work.

A Spanish patrol boat rescued 33 people and recovered one body from the boat Wednesday night in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of southern Almeria province, the Interior Ministry office in Almeria said.

Survivors told police they had been adrift for four or five days after the boat’s motor broke down and that as people died — 14 in all, including nine children aged one to four — their bodies were thrown overboard, Red Cross spokesman Antonio Hermosa said.

‘Absolute horror'
He said conditions aboard the vessel — nearly 50 people crammed into a 20-foot (6-meter) boat — must have been awful and the bodies were probably tossed overboard because they must have been rotting in the hot Mediterranean sun.

“We are talking absolute horror,” Hermosa said.

Three other migrant boats carrying 139 people were also intercepted Wednesday night in Almeria waters, a maritime rescue official said.

On Monday, Spanish officials said 14 Africans were missing and presumed dead off the city of Motril after their boat capsized in rough seas. Crews pulled 23 people out of the water, including a pregnant woman.

The government has decided to let that woman and a man who lost his wife, child and brother in the ordeal remain in Spain as a humanitarian gesture, Hermosa said.

Every year, thousands of poor Africans seeking a better life attempt treacherous journeys in overcrowded boats, hoping to reach the Spanish mainland or Spain’s Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa.

Most are caught and hundreds more die along the way, either from exposure or by drowning.

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