Some 200 clandestine immigrants feared dead in waters off Tunisia
21 June 2003

SFAX (Tunisia) June 21 - Rescuers off the coast of Tunisia in north Africa were Saturday losing hope of finding alive nearly 200 clandestine immigrants who went missing after their overloaded boat capsized on its way to Europe.

'We do not have much chance of finding survivors, the units already operational are trying to recover the corpses of the drowned,' Colonel Adel Garma of the national guard told AFP on Saturday, some 36 hours after the boat went down.

Twelve people were confirmed drowned, their bodies fished out by rescuers, 197 were missing and 41 survived after the boat laden with clandestine immigrants from Africa capsized in high seas southeast of the Tunisian industrial city of Sfax.

The survivors, including a pregnant woman, said they spent five hours in the open sea before being rescued by fishing crews.

'We had to swim for five hours before being picked up,' 24-year-old Abdeljelil of Morocco told AFP from the port of Sfax, where the survivors, all apparently in good health, were being held Saturday.

The boat, 'overloaded and in bad condition' sank overnight Thursday carrying some 250 would-be immigrants including nationals of Mali, Ghana, Somalia, Egypt and Morocco whom it picked off the coast of neighboring Libya on Thursday morning and headed for Italy, survivors said.

'We all paid our smugglers in Libya between 500 and 800 dollars (430-690 euros),' said 28-year-old Aboubakar of Mali. 'There were a lot of us in the boat, which was in bad condition.'

Abdeljelil said that 'cracks appeared in the boat and it began to take on water.'

'We managed to seal them, but soon more appeared and the boat capsized at 1:00 am (midnight Thursday GMT) Friday morning' some seven hours after setting off, Abdeljelil said.

The boat sank some 60 nautical miles off the Tunisian coast, between Kerkennah and Djerba islands.

The alarm was first raised when the small fishing port of Mahdia near Sfax received a radio distress signal at dawn Friday from the skipper of a fishing vessel from Sfax.

Tunisia, because of its proximity to the Italian coast, has become a favourite crossing point for clandestine immigrants from sub-Saharan and north Africa headed for Europe. Many also go via Morocco to Spain.

In a recent upsurge in clandestine migration in the region, another boat carrying 28 people bound for Italy was intercepted Friday off Zarzis, further south along Tunisia's east coast. Late Thursday a makeshift boat carrying 24 Africans from a 'neighboring country' - again likely Libya - was stopped off Tunisia's Djerba island.

The Italian authorities on Wednesday accused Libya of being the point of departure for boats ferrying immigrants across the Mediterranean to Italy's shores. A week ago a boat that had sailed from Libya with 70 Africans aboard sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa, claiming at least seven lives.

The Tunisian authorities have sought to clamp down on illegal emigration to Europe.

In early June, a Tunisian woman was sentenced to 22 years and eight months in prison for swindling her compatriots in clandestine immigration schemes.

Tunisian and Italian authorities cooperate closely in the fight against people trafficking, and have signed agreements allowing quotas of migrant workers to enter Italy. - AFP


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