CAIRO — A boat carrying African migrants headed to Europe capsized off the Mediterranean coast near the Egyptian city of Alexandria on Wednesday, killing at least 42 people, Egyptian authorities said.
The army gave the toll in a statement, saying it had "thwarted an illegal immigration attempt" and that the boat had been 12 nautical miles off the coast when it sank.
In the city of Rosetta, Egyptian families gathered near the harbor urging authorities to do more in their search and rescue effort for their loved ones who were among the lost.
"We have been telling the authorities from 5:30 a.m., that the boat is sinking, and they were saying they had no rescue boats, and no one was moving," said Hassan Suleiman Daoud, a relative of one of the migrants.
Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said that the total number of dead was still unknown. Local official Alaa Osman from Beheira province said the migrants were from several African countries. He said over 150 people have been rescued so far but that bodies are still being pulled from the water.
Egypt's official news agency MENA said the boat was carrying 600 people when it sank near the coast, some 112 miles north of the capital, Cairo. Osman said the boat had likely come from Kafr el-Sheik province, further to the east.
Thousands of illegal migrants have made the dangerous sea voyage across the Mediterranean in recent years fleeing war and poverty, mostly via lawless Libya. Thousands have drowned.
The number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt to Europe has increased significantly in the past year, EU border agency Frontex said earlier this month. More than 12,000 migrants arrived in Italy from Egypt between January and September, compared to 7,000 in the same period last year, it said.
Experts say smugglers in Egypt mostly use old fishing vessels, stuffed way beyond capacity both below and above deck.
New and more dangerous smuggling practices and attempts to reach Europe by riskier routes have led to a spike in the number of migrants dying as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean, the International Organization for Migration said in a report last month.
It said newer routes, particularly from Egypt, are longer and riskier, leading to search and rescue efforts often being carried out farther away from land. It said 2,901 people died or disappeared crossing the Mediterranean in the first six months of 2016, a 37 percent increase over the first six months of last year.
Last May, hundreds of migrants died after a wooden boat coming from Libya capsized, even as the Italian navy rushed to the rescue. European rescue boats, including naval vessels, often patrol off the Libyan coast to prevent such disasters.
The migrant crisis has proven deeply divisive in Europe, which has struggled to come up with a unified response. Right-wing nationalist parties opposed to taking in more migrants and refugees have made gains, including in Germany, which has accepted more migrants than any other European country.
Migrants rescued by the Italian navy near Europe's southern borders are brought to processing centers and offered accommodation while they apply for asylum. But many of the thousands registered each month travel further onwards toward Europe's richer north, in hopes of settling there.
More than 60,000 migrants and refugees are stranded in transit in Greece — just across the Mediterranean from Egypt — and those who arrived after March 20 have been restricted to five Aegean islands under an EU-brokered deal to deport them back to Turkey. The agreement has been fraught with delays, however, and most of the people in island camps have applied for asylum in Greece, launching a lengthy process during which they cannot be deported.