updated 12/3/2004 9:58:08 PM ET 2004-12-04T02:58:08

A boat carrying at least 91 Dominican migrants apparently trying to reach Puerto Rico illegally capsized Friday, killing eight people, officials said.

The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 83 people and found eight bodies after the 40-foot boat overturned Friday morning in rough seas off northern Puerto Rico, said Lt. Eric Willis, a Coast Guard spokesman. Authorities were still searching for possible survivors.

A police boat first spotted the migrants and notified the Coast Guard hours before the boat capsized, said Julio Pantoja, the chief of Forces United for Rapid Action, a Puerto Rican special police force. He said the migrants turned back after seeing the police, who were unable to pursue because of the stormy seas.

Willis said the boat capsized after it was spotted by a Coast Guard plane and tried to circle back and make a second attempt to reach land. Two Coast Guard cutters and a helicopter were sent to the scene and managed to rescue most of those on board, he said.

The number of migrants trying to reach the U.S. Caribbean territory has surged over the last two years, with most coming from the Dominican Republic. Dozens have died trying to make the perilous journey.

Last month, at least 12 Dominicans died and six were missing and presumed dead after their boat overturned. In fiscal year 2004, which ended Oct. 1, at least 110 migrants died trying to reach Puerto Rico.

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