Survivors from a boat that foundered off Libya's coast Tuesday said about 50 people who had embarked with them were feared dead, while the coast guard said the number of missing might be as high as 100.
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Libyan coastguard vessels picked up nearly 300 refugees from three boats off the coast of the North African country Tuesday, but one rubber boat was punctured and the coastguard only found 16 survivors clinging to its wreckage.
"We found the migrant boat at about 10 o'clock this morning, it had sunk and we found 16 migrants. The rest were all missing and unfortunately we didn't find any bodies or [other] survivors," said Nasr Qamoudi, a coast guard commander. A coast guard statement later said that "at least 90-100" refugees were missing.
A Nigerian woman who had been on board the boat that sank, Zainab Abdesalam, told Reuters the migrants had waited several hours to be rescued and that the survivors were extremely weak.
"I feel so disappointed because I could not make it to where I want to go," she said, sobbing. "I feel so disappointed and I don't want to go to prison."
Libya is the most common departure point for asylum seekers and refugees trying to reach Europe from Africa by sea. More than 600,000 have crossed the central Mediterranean in the past four years, generally travelling in flimsy inflatable craft provided by smugglers that often break down or puncture.
Under heavy pressure from Italy, some Libyan armed factions have blocked smuggling since last summer. Libya's Italian-backed coast guard has also stepped up interceptions, returning migrants to Libya where they are detained and often reenter smuggling networks.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that 2,832 migrants died last year trying to reach Italy from North Africa, down from 4,581 in 2016.