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Death Toll in Migrant Boat Capsize Thought to Be 800, U.N. Says

The U.N.'s refugee agency said if more than 800 are dead as it believes, it would be the worst disaster in the Mediterranean it has ever recorded.
/ Source: NBC News

The United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday that more than 800 people are believed to have perished when a ship crammed with migrants capsized in the Mediterranean Sunday, making it the worst maritime disaster the agency has ever recorded in the Mediterranean.

Only 28 people are known to have survived when the ship got into trouble as it ferried around 850 people from Libya to Southern Europe, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement. The migrants were from Eritrea, Syria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia, the agency said.

"The migrants looked exhausted, fragile, astonished to see so many people waiting for them. They will need psychological support. They are receiving food and water," UNHCR spokesperson Carlotta Sami in Catania, Sicily, said.

The Tunisian captain of the boat, 27-year-old Mohammed Ali Malek, has been arrested and charged with manslaughter, Italian prosecutors said Tuesday. A Syrian crew member was also charged. The prosecutor’s office said many of the migrants may have been locked inside the boat when it sank. Only 24 bodies have been recovered.

Also Tuesday, hundreds of people demonstrated in front of the Italian Parliament in Rome, demanding the government do more the save the lives of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Some migrants said that regardless of what those efforts might be, "people are still coming."

"No matter how they (the Italian government) do it, people are still coming because in Africa, in general, we have a problem," Lamin Gambia, a native of Gambia who reached Italy after crossing seven countries and the Mediterranean Sea, told Reuters TV.

The number of migrants who have died in the Mediterranean Sea this year is 30 times higher this year than during the same period in 2014, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration said on Tuesday. So far this year 1,750 have died making the trip while only 56 migrant deaths were reported last year.

A capsize south of Malta on April 14 is believed to have killed 400 migrants, the IOM said. "IOM now fears that the 2014 total of 3,279 migrant deaths may be surpassed this year in a matter of weeks," the inter-government organization said.

The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday "expressed their grave concern at the recent proliferation of, and endangerment of lives by, the smuggling of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Libya."

Italian ships have rescued well over 10,000 people over the past two weeks, an unprecedented number for such a short period, The Associated Press reported, citing authorities. The rescues continued Tuesday, with another 112 migrants, all men, picked up in a deflating rubber life raft in waters some 50 miles north of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, the AP reported.

Pope Francis on Sunday appealed to the international community to ensure that no more tragedies like the most recent disaster occur.

"They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war. They were looking for a better life," Francis told tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square for his Sunday noon address.


The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.