Hundreds Appear to Have Died in Migrant Disaster, Says Italian President

Gavin Jones
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A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean, February 12, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Gavin Jones

REUTERS - Egyptian, Italian and Greek officials were unable to confirm a BBC report and a comment made by the Italian president on Monday that up to 400 people, most of them Somali, had capsized near the Egyptian coast after setting off for Italy in boats.

Speaking at a prize giving ceremony in Rome, Italian President Sergio Mattarella said Europe needed to reflect in the face of "yet another tragedy in the Mediterranean in which, it seems, several hundred people have died." 

Somalia's government said between 200 and 300 Somalis may have drowned, based on information it has gathered in the past two days from the Somali diaspora and its embassy in Egypt.

"We have no fixed number but it is between 200 and 300 Somalis," Somali Information Minister Mohamed Abdi Hayir told Reuters by telephone. "There is no clear number since they are not travelling legally."

The minister said he understood a boat may have been carrying about 500 people, of which 200 to 300 were Somalis "and most of them had died". He did not give a precise timing for the incident.

Officials in Egypt did not immediately respond to inquiries and Italy's coast guard, which coordinates all rescues in the waters between Italy and Libya, said it had no information about a shipwreck. It did, however, say that six bodies had been recovered on Sunday and 108 migrants rescued from a semi-submerged rubber dinghy.

The Greek coast guard also said it had no news of a fresh tragedy, and the Somali ambassador to Egypt, cited by the BBC, could not be immediately reached.

In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said: "Our offices in Egypt, Italy and Greece are trying to find out more about this reported incident but, so far, we cannot confirm it."

Exactly one year ago, an estimated 800 migrants drowned off the Libyan coast when the fishing boat they were travelling in collided with a mercantile vessel that was attempting to rescue them - the most deadly Mediterranean shipwreck in decades. 

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