By John Hooper (Guardian.co.uk)
Thousands of people fleeing violence in north Africa have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe by boat in recent months.
About 250 people are feared to have drowned after their attempt to flee the violence in Libya apparently ended in tragedy off the Tunisian coast.
Coastguards and military personnel are reported to have saved at least 570 people, all from sub-Saharan Africa, during a rescue operation in rough seas and shallow waters off the Kerkennah islands east of the Tunisian coast.
It was not immediately clear whether the refugees and migrants were abroad a single vessel or several. Reuters quoted a Tunisian official as saying they were trying to reach Italy on small fishing boats.
“Search operations are still continuing. About 250 people are missing,” said the official from the southern Tunisian port of Sfax. “We haven’t found a single body so far.”
Tunisia’s TAP news agency said one vessel was involved. “The disappearance of such a large number of people is due to the scramble aboard the fishing boat which capsized under the weight of the passengers,” it said, suggesting a trend among traffickers of packing ever more people aboard the vessels casting off from the Libyan coast.
On Tuesday Italian coast and revenue guards found 932 would-be migrants crammed into a single boat intercepted off the coast of Sicily.
It was the biggest human cargo identified in the Mediterranean since the start of the upheavals in north Africa, which began in Tunisia in January. By some reckonings it was the biggest ever.
Nine men were arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of having crewed the overcrowded vessel. They included four Egyptians, three Algerians, a Tunisian and a Moroccan.
The boat, or flotilla, involved in Thursday’s disaster appears to have got into difficulties late on Tuesday. According to one report a single boat carrying about 800 people ran ashore on a sandbank 20 miles off the Kerkennah islands.
Most accounts said that Tunisian coastguard and military vessels sent to rescue those on board were unable to get into the shallow waters. TAP said the rescue was made more difficult by “bad weather conditions and the inadequacy of the rescue resources deployed in comparison with the number of people aboard”.
The Tunisians sent out smaller boats that were able to manoeuvre close to the stricken vessel. Many of those missing were thought to have drowned after diving into the heavy seas to reach the rescuers.
TAP said 193 people had already been transferred to the Choucha refugee camp near the border with Libya. About another 385 were expected to join them on Thursday.
Two people died after being brought ashore, while nine were taken to hospital in Sfax, including two pregnant women who were put in maternity wings, TAP said.
According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, an NGO network, about 14,000 people had fled to Italy and Malta from Libya by 20 May. Another 1,200 were missing, suggesting that people who try to flee the hostilities by sea stand a chance of about one in 13 of dying.