ZUWARA, Libya: Libya recovered 105 bodies after a boat packed with migrants sank in the Mediterranean Sea and said almost 100 more people were missing and feared dead.
The vessel sank on Thursday after leaving Zuwara, a major launchpad for smugglers shipping migrants to Italy by exploiting a security vacuum in Libya where rival governments are fighting for control four years after the ousting of Muammar Qaddafi.
Lacking navy ships, Libyan officials were searching for survivors with fishing boats and inflatables provided by locals. About 198 people had been rescued by noon, officials said.
“The boat was in a bad condition and people died with us,” said Ayman Talaal, a Syrian survivor, standing next to his daughter. “We have been forced into this route. It’s now called the grave of the Mediterranean Sea.”
Local officials and residents were putting bodies into red bags on a beach littered with shoes, trousers and other personal items from drowned migrants. A blue inflatable brought in more bodies.
“We, the Red Crescent, work with nothing. Some fishermen help us with a boat,” said Ibrahim Al-Attoushi, an official at the Red Crescent in Zuwara. “We only have one ambulance car.”
Lawless Libya has turned into a major transit route for migrants fleeing conflict and poverty to make it to Europe. Cross-border smuggler networks exploit the country’s chaos to bring Syrians into Libya via Egypt or nationals of sub-Saharan countries via Niger, Sudan and Chad.
The migrants pay thousands of dollars for the land and sea passage with smugglers often beating and torturing them to press for more money for the final leg of the trip by sea in unseaworthy vessels, rights groups say.
Libyan officials brought 147 survivors to a detention facility for illegal migrants in Sabratha, west of Tripoli, a Libyan security official said, asking not to be named.
“We have not received a request for help,” said a spokesman for the Italian coast guard, which has been coordinating rescue operations with the European Union off the Libyan coast.
About 100 angry Zuwara residents took to the town’s main square on Thursday when news of the sinking spread, demanding that authorities stop human traffickers, witnesses said.
Libya has asked the European Union for help to train and equip its navy which was largely destroyed during the uprising in 2011 that toppled Qaddafi.
But all training and cooperation was frozen in 2014 as the European Union boycotted a self-declared government controlling western Libya, which seized the capital Tripoli a year ago by expelling the official premier to the east.
Western and most Arab powers only deal with the eastern-based government, which has no control of western Libya from were boats are launched due to its proximity to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The United Nations has been hosting peace talks between the two administrations to form a unity government but a Tripoli based rival parliament, riddled with divisions, refused to sign a preliminary agreement last month.
The number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe has passed 300,000 this year, up from 219,000 in the whole of 2014, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday.
More than 2,500 people have died making the crossing this year, not including those feared drowned off Libya in the last 24 hours, it said. That compares with 3,500 who died or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2014.
Libya has been struggling to cope with the influx of migrants, putting them in overcrowded makeshift detention facilities such as schools or military barracks where they live in poor conditions lacking medical care.
(Reporting by Hani Amara and Ahmed Elumami)