More than 200 migrants who fled Libya in a fishing trawler headed for Europe were missing Thursday morning in the Mediterranean Sea after the boat capsized off the coast of Tunisia.
Tunisia’s state news agency TAP reports at least two are dead. The migrants, who were from Africa and Asia, may have drowned as they rushed to get off the overcrowded boat after it ran into trouble. Bad weather seems to have contributed to the problem. TAP says the boat was headed to Italy.
From the New York Times:
Rescuers from the Tunisian Coast Guard and Navy were able to save 578 men, women and children from the 100-foot fishing vessel, which was crowded with as many as 850 passengers when it ran aground Tuesday about 30 miles from the Kerkennah Islands, said Col. Lotfi Baili of the coast guard, who helped coordinate the operation.
Hundreds of passengers fell from the vessel when it listed, he said, and others fell into the water during the scramble to reach the military rescue boats. The Tunisians were overwhelmed by the number of migrants who needed to be rescued, he said, and could use only small vessels because the water was so shallow.
Survivors Taken To Refugee Camp
About 200 survivors have been taken to a refugee camp at Ras Ajdir, on the Tunisian border with Libya, and the remaining survivors are expected to be sent there soon, according to the Times.
The violence in Libya and turmoil throughout the region, including Tunisia, has spurred thousands of migrants to flee by boat in recent months not only to escape the turmoil but in search of better economic opportunities.
Reports say between 30,000 and 40,000 refugees from Tunisia and Libya have landed in Lampedusa, an Italian island that lies half way between Tunisia and Sicily and, as CNN points out, is the closest Italian island to Africa. The Italian government has been scrambling to deal with an immigration crisis that has been burgeoning since February.
As Care2′s Judy Molland reported here a few weeks ago, dozens of immigrants died in the Mediterranean enroute to Lampedusa in another incident in late March.
Libya’s Oil Minister Announces Defection
In the meantime, another high ranking Libyan official defected on Wednesday and says he is thinking about joining the opposition. Shukri Ghanem, Libya’s oil minister, told CNN in Rome “that he left Libya because the suffering of the people became too unbearable.”
“This war is getting even worse every day and there is no end to it and we would like to end this thing peacefully and come back to a solution quickly to reinstate democracy and constitutional government,” he said.
NATO Extends Mission Another 90 Days
Ghanem’s defection came on the heels of NATO’s announcement that it is extending its mission in Libya by 90 days.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen issued a statement saying, “We are determined to continue our operation to protect the people of Libya. We will sustain our efforts to fulfill the United Nations mandate. We will keep up the pressure to see it through,” according to CNN.
The latest round of NATO air strikes hit the Libyan capital late Thursday and early Friday morning, a day after Rasmussen’s announcement, while government forces shelled rebel positions on the front lines to the east.
U.S. House of Representatives To Vote On Libya Resolution Friday
CNN also reported:
The U.S. House of Representatives will vote Friday on a non-binding resolution that demands more information on the U.S.-backed Libya mission from President Barack Obama, as well as a separate measure that calls for the United States to pull out of NATO’s Libya operation.
The non-binding resolution was proposed to avoid the possibility that the withdrawal measure could pass and set up an embarrassing situation for the U.S. government and NATO.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates opposes the withdrawal measure, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
To read more about the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa click here.
Photo: Libya uprising map by Rafy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons