Three survivors of a rubber dinghy that sank in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya say up to 117 other migrants were aboard at the time of the capsizing, a U.N. migration official said Saturday.
It appeared to be the latest tragedy on the dangerous central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Europe.
Flavio Di Giacomo of the International Organisation for Migration said “unfortunately about 120” migrants were reported by survivors to have been on the overloaded smugglers’ dinghy when it was launched from Libyan shores on Thursday evening.
“After a few hours, it began sinking and people began drowning,” Di Giacomo said.
Among the missing are 10 women and two children, including a two-month-old baby, he said.
Survivors said their fellow migrants came from The Gambia and other West African countries including Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
The three survivors were plucked to safety by an Italian navy helicopter on Friday afternoon, the navy said. The sinking dinghy, when spotted by a navy patrol plane, had about 20 persons aboard, the navy said.
The plane’s crew launched two life rafts near the dinghy, which inflated, and a navy destroyer some 100 nautical (200 kilometers) away dispatched a helicopter to the scene, the navy said.
The helicopter rescued the survivors, two of whom were on a life raft and the third in the water, the navy said, adding that all three were suffering from hypothermia.
They were flown to Lampedusa, an Italian island near Sicily, and treated in a hospital, Di Giacomo said.
It wasn’t immediately how many migrants had fallen off the sinking dinghy before the navy plane spotted it.
The Italian Coast Guard says Libya asked a nearby cargo ship to search for survivors but they reported no one was found.
The Italian news agency ANSA quoted Libyan authorities as saying a Libyan coast guard boat was dispatched to the scene but turned back after mechanical problems.
It also quoted those authorities as saying some 50 persons were aboard the dinghy when it left Libya.