updated 10/4/2004 7:51:51 AM ET 2004-10-04T11:51:51

A ship carrying dozens of illegal immigrants capsized off Tunisia, the official news agency reported Monday, killing at least 17 people. Another 47 were reported missing.

Rescue teams saved at least 11 people but many more were feared to have drowned, the TAP news agency said. Tunis Hebdo newspaper said the ship apparently sunk late Saturday or early Sunday.

The ship was headed to Italy with 70 Moroccans and five Tunisians on board when it sank an hour after leaving Chott Meriem, 93 miles southeast of the Tunisian capital, Tunis.

Italy, meanwhile, said it planned to repatriate more illegal immigrants Monday, after hundreds of people arrived over the weekend on a tiny island off the coast of Sicily.

The immigrants would be sent back on C-130 military planes, said Michele Miosi, a coast guard official in Lampedusa, an island closer to Africa than to Italy.

Miosi declined to disclose the number of people who would be repatriated, but reports said at least 360 would be sent back to Libya later in the day.

For the first time in days, there were no new mass arrivals on Monday, except for a boat carrying four people, Miosi said. No other boatloads have been spotted so far.

On Sunday, more than 1,200 migrants were held in the detention center in Lampedusa.

A few hundred were flown back to Libya, where most of the illegal immigrants reaching Italian shores every year depart from. The immigrant arrivals have increased recently, helped by calm seas and mild early autumn night temperatures.

“Sending back illegal immigrants by plane is a method we’ll increasingly use. It is useful to discourage the departure of illegal immigrants to Italy,” Interior Undersecretary Alfredo Mantovano said in an interview with La Stampa published Monday.

Relatively few of the thousands who try to slip into Italy by boat each year intend to stay in the country. Most hope to travel to other European Union countries such as Germany, with proportionally larger immigrant populations.

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