updated 2/16/2009 10:38:06 AM ET 2009-02-16T15:38:06

A rickety boat carrying illegal migrants from Morocco capsized in rough seas just off Spain's Canary Islands and 19 of them drowned, an official and witnesses said Monday. At least three were missing.

The boat overturned Sunday evening very close to Lanzarote's shores. Several island residents dived into the water and managed to save six of the migrants with the help of others in small boats.

"When we got there we could see those that were alive and the rest were just floating," Anibal Betancort, who took part in the rescue operation, told Cadena SER radio. "From the shoreline, we threw them ropes and life jackets."

Betancort said the survivors "were clinging to the sinking boat and screaming." He said most of the migrants appeared to be between the ages of 25 and 35.

Five of the bodies, including one of an 8-year-old girl, were recovered Sunday, Marine Rescue Service director Anibal Carrillo said. Fourteen more were found when rescue operations resumed Monday.

Carrillo said authorities estimated the fiberglass boat was carrying 28.

Treacherous journeys
Thousands of people seeking a better life in Europe attempt treacherous journeys from Africa to the Canary Islands or the Spanish mainland in overcrowded boats every year. Most are caught, but hundreds die along the way.

"I hope it's the last time I see this. You feel totally useless, seeing the people like that," Betancort said. "You can't do anything with the sea so rough."

Spain says increased surveillance has helped slash the number of migrant boats reaching the country by around 25 percent to 13,500 last year.

Normally, migrants who manage to reach the islands are repatriated if authorities can identify where they came from. Otherwise, they are kept in a holding camp for 40 days and eventually set free without residency papers or work permits and told they must leave Spain.

More on Migrants   |  Canary Islands

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