MADRID, Oct 29 (Reuters) Fifty-six Africans trying to reach Spain by boat drowned, starved or killed themselves in despair because their spare fuel supplies had been replaced by water, the sole survivor told the newspaper El Pais.
A Spanish fishing boat found Senegalese skipper Leidi Fall barely alive in the half-sunken vessel south of the Cape Verde islands last Wednesday -- 21 days after he set sail.
Some of his passengers were rolled overboard by others as they slept, others committed suicide and some died in their sleep, he told the paper.
The 29-year-old was too weak to throw overboard the bloated corpses of the last seven passengers that were found with him.
His story is the latest in a series of tragedies that are thought to kill thousands of illegal migrants every year as they try to get to the Spanish Canary Islands, a European outpost, in rickety boats from the west coast of Africa.
Speaking from his hospital bed in Dakar, Fall told El Pais that the open-topped boat set off from Mauritania on October 3 with water, rice and what he believed was 200 litres of fuel.
''On the fourth day of the journey the first can of fuel was finished. It was then we realised that we had been tricked,'' and that the other cans held only water, he said.
Fall, who was made captain because he had made the same voyage last October only to be repatriated by Spain, said that at that point they were 157 km from the Canaries according to the boat's GPS guidance system.
''People started to shout, others prayed and many cried as if they were small children,'' he said. Those packed onto the boat included 28 Guineans, 20 Malians and 3 Senegalese, he added.
When the food ran out, passengers started fighting: ''Some took advantage when others were sleeping to throw them over the side while the others did nothing to help them.'' As the boat drifted south, away from their destination, Fall and fellow passengers had to throw dozens of bodies overboard.
''Those of us that remained said a little prayer before throwing them over the side,'' he told El Pais.
At least 10 passengers, mostly Malians, committed suicide by throwing themselves into the sea. ''The others went to sleep little by little, and never woke up again.'' Without fuel the boat drifted 2,000 km south of the Canaries and 1,000 km from its starting point at Nouadhibou, Mauritania, before it was found.
Senegalese police have opened an investigation to see if Fall had any responsibility for the deaths, the newspaper said.
Reuters SKB GC2040