ATHENS, Greece (AP) — More than 110 bodies were found along a Libyan beach after a smuggling boat of mostly African migrants sank, while a separate search-and-rescue operation across the Mediterranean saved 340 people Friday and recovered nine bodies.
The developments were the latest deadly disasters for refugees and migrants seeking a better life in Europe, and they followed the drownings of more than 1,000 people since May 25 while attempting the long and perilous journey from North Africa to southern Europe.
As traffickers take advantage of improving weather, officials say it is impossible to know how many unseaworthy boats are being launched — and how many never reach their destination. Naval operations in the southern Mediterranean, coordinated by Italy, have been stretched just responding to the disasters they do hear about.
At least 117 bodies —75 women, six children and 36 men — washed up on a beach or were pulled from the water near the western Libyan city of Zwara Thursday and Friday, 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.
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The children were aged between 7 and 10, said Bahaa al-Kwash, a top media official in the Red Crescent.
“It is very painful, and the numbers are very high,” he said, adding that the dead were not wearing life jackets — something the organization had noticed about bodies recovered in recent weeks.
“This is a cross-border network of smugglers and traffickers, and there is a need for an international effort to combat this phenomenon,” he said.
As is frequently the case, authorities were uncertain when or how the people died. The coast guard 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 had drowned in the past 48 hours. The empty boat might have been the one carrying the victims, but strong winds and currents can push bodies from one place to the other, he added, making it difficult to determine where the tragedy occurred.
The first signs of a disaster often are either a mayday call from a passenger or the discovery of bodies.
Gassim blamed Europe for “doing nothing but counting bodies” in trying to stop the flow of migrants from Libya.
Libya has been in chaos since the ouster and killing of its longtime autocratic ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The country has been split into rival governments, with each supported by a loose set of militias and tribes. Smuggling gangs have taken advantage of the turmoil to send waves of overcrowded boats toward Europe.
Hadi al-Zowaghi, a Red Crescent representative in the Libyan town of Sabratha, criticized local security forces for not trying to stop the human trafficking and failing to properly document those who die.
“Burial is arbitrary, no data kept, no grave numbers, nothing, as if these people never existed,” al-Zowaghi told the AP from Sabratha, a major transit area for migrants near Zwara, which is where the bodies were found.
“These are real people with names and stories,” he said. “They had families. They deserve to be buried properly and their relatives deserve to be notified.”
The number of people drowning is “huge,” with dozens washing ashore each week, he said. Volunteers also were worried about the environmental impact of the dead along the beaches, he said.
The Zwara Municipal Council criticized the silence of Libyan authorities and the lack of an international response to the continuing loss of life.
Aid officials say the last two weeks have been especially deadly because smugglers are using riskier tactics such as bigger boats that are even less-seaworthy than before.
About 75 nautical miles south of Crete, another migrant boat sank Friday, with Greek authorities saying 340 people were rescued and nine bodies recovered in an operation involving Greek helicopters, planes, patrol boats and merchant ships.
Greece’s coast guard said the roughly 25-meter (82-foot) vessel had been carrying an undetermined number of people when it was located half-sunk in international waters. It was not immediately clear where the boat was from, where it was headed or who had been aboard.
Most survivors were picked up by the Norwegian-flagged tanker Clipper Hebe and were being taken to the Sicilian port of Augusta in Italy. Others were to be taken to Egypt, Turkey and Malta.
“The information we have on the number of people on board the vessel is still unclear — we’ve heard that there were 400 or 500 people on board, but we cannot confirm that number,” coast guard spokesman Nikos Lagadianos said. “There is a huge rescue effort underway.”.
Elinor Raikes of the International Rescue Committee said such incidents show “that desperate people will continue to attempt these treacherous journeys until adequate legal alternatives to safety are established.”
Border closures, she said, “will only result in new and alternative smuggling routes, and we can expect many more of these tragedies to occur as dangerous journeys present the only option.”
The shorter Aegean Sea crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands was the preferred sea route for those heading to Europe until Balkan countries closed their borders in March and the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey to send back any newcomers. The deal has led to a dramatic decrease in the number of people landing the islands from Turkey.
Many have speculated that the EU migrant deal could prompt Syrians to try the more dangerous Libya-to-Italy route, but authorities have seen no signs yet of any big shift.
Michael reported from Cairo. Rami Musa in Benghazi, Libya, Derek Gatopoulos and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed.
Follow Becatoros on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ElenaBec and Michael at https://twitter.com/mokhbersahafi