117 Bodies Found Off Libyan Coast as Smuggling Boat Sinks

ATHENS (AP) -

More than 110 bodies were pulled from the sea off Libya’s shores Friday after a smuggling boat carrying mainly African migrants sank into the Mediterranean, and a separate massive search-and-rescue operation in the open sea saved 340 people and recovered nine bodies.

The two sinkings were the latest deadly disasters for refugees hoping to find better lives in Europe, and came in addition to the over 1,000 people who drowned since May 25 while attempting the perilous, lengthy journey across the sea from North Africa to Europe’s southern shores.

As traffickers take advantage of the improving weather, officials say it is impossible to know how many unseaworthy boats are being launching daily from Libya to Europe – and how many never reach their target. A host of naval operations in the southern Mediterranean, coordinated by Italy, have been stretched just responding to the disasters they do hear about.

In Libya, at least 117 bodies -75 women, six children and 36 men – were pulled out from the waters near the western city of Zwara, Mohammed al-Mosrati, a spokesman for Libya’s Red Crescent, told The Associated Press. All but a few were from African countries. The death toll was expected to rise. No life jackets were seen on Red Cross photos of the bodies.

But, as is frequently the case, authorities were uncertain when or how the people died. Libyan Coast Guard personnel found an empty boat drifting Thursday, Libyan navy Col. Ayoub Gassim told the AP, adding it was possible the vessel had capsized a day earlier.

Al-Mosrati of the Red Crescent said the bodies were not “decomposed and therefore have drowned within the past 48 hours.” He said the boat that was found might have been the one carrying the victims. But strong winds and currents can push bodies from one place to the other, he said, making it difficult for authorities to determine where the tragedy occurred.