ATHENS, Greece (AP) — More than 110 bodies were pulled from the sea off Libya 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 the improving weather, officials say it is impossible to know how many unseaworthy boats are being launched daily — 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.
At least 117 bodies —75 women, six children and 36 men — were pulled from the waters near the western Libyan city of Zwara on 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.
The children were 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 by telephone, 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 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 added, making it difficult to determine where the tragedy occurred.
The first signs of a disaster often are either a mayday call from one of the passengers to European authorities or the discovery of bodies washing ashore.
Gassim blamed Europe for “doing nothing but counting bodies” in trying to stop the massive illegal migration 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 and parliaments, 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.
Al-Zowaghi said he has stopped helping because he can’t be part of “this corrupt and inhuman trade.” Migrants have said Libya’s detention centers are guarded by militias who accept bribes to let them try to cross again with help of smugglers.
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, which resembled a large fishing boat, 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 and Malta. A search was continuing, the coast guard said.
“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.”
It would be “very difficult” for divers to reach the wreck anytime soon, he said.
“A few hours ago, only the tip of the ship’s mast was sticking out of the water. Now it’s considered to have sunk,” he added.
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.