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Bad weather caused Libyan migrant boat to sink

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Bad weather and passenger panic caused the deadly sinking of a smugglers’ boat off Libya this week, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Wednesday.

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Survivors told IOM staff that the smuggler, an Egyptian national, was among those who drowned when the boat capsized three hours after it left Janzour, 15 km (9 miles) west of Tripoli, Monday.

“The migrants said they had survived because they had stayed at the back of the boat, the only part to have stayed afloat,” the IOM said in a statement, which said there were 257 people on board the ship, of whom 70 were women and two were children.

About 20 migrants survived the accident, including one woman, it said. Many survivors had kidney problems after having drunk sea water, but otherwise appeared in good health.

Earlier Wednesday, Libyan authorities said they recovered the bodies of 100 of the migrants trying to reach Europe.

“Seventy-seven bodies of the migrants washed up in the beach west of Tripoli late Tuesday and 23 more bodies were found between Sunday night and Tuesday,” an official told Reuters.

Estimates of the total number aboard the ship vary. Libyan officials believe there were 365 people attempting the journey on the boat that was supposed to hold only 75.

The migrants were Somalis, Nigerians, Eritreans, Kurds, Algerians, Moroccans, Palestinians and Tunisians, according to the officials. The ill-fated ship was one of four migrant boats which had sailed from Libya between Saturday and Sunday, apparently heading to Italy.

Libyan coastguards had rescued 350 migrants, many of them women and children, after their boat broke down Sunday near a Libyan offshore oilfield, they said.

“As for the fate of the two remaining boats, we have information that one had reached Italy and the latest information we had about the other boat was it had left Libyan waters and was spotted close to Malta,” a Libyan official said.

There are between 1 million and 1.5 million African migrants in Libya, according to the IOM.

Libya is both a transit and a destination country for migrants. Most take odd jobs to gather enough money to pay smugglers for the risky journey to Italy.

IOM and Libyan officials say there appears to have been a surge in the number of people using smugglers to leave North Africa, prompted by fears that Libya and Italy would step up a crackdown on illegal migration next month.

Tripoli and Rome have reached an agreement on joint sea patrols to try to stem the flow of illegal migrants. The accord becomes effective on May 15.

(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in Geneva)

Writing by Lamine Ghanmi