BANJUL, Nov 12 (Reuters) At least twenty illegal African migrants headed for Spain were feared dead after their boat caught fire and capsized off the coast of Gambia at the weekend, a survivor and police in the small West African state said.
It was the third such tragedy in as many weeks involving West Africans trying to reach the Spanish Canary Islands by sea to seek jobs and a better life in Europe.
More than 120 Africans have died or are missing feared dead in the recent incidents, which point to a seasonal pickup in clandestine migrant departures despite Spanish and European Union patrols sharply cutting overall arrivals.
Gambian police said they recovered seven bodies from the capsized boat which a survivor said was carrying 50 passengers when it caught fire and turned over in bad weather late on Saturday two km (about 1 mile) off the Gambian capital Banjul.
''I believe that 30 escaped. I showed the marine officers who came to the scene seven dead bodies. The captain of the vessel is at large. He asked us to pay him 1,000 euros (1,459 dollars) to take us to Spain,'' survivor Lamin Fatty told Gambian TV.
Police said they believed the blaze on the boat started when fuel containers on board for the long journey to the Canaries ignited, apparently because one of the passengers was smoking.
Last year, more than 30,000 African illegal migrants landed in Spain's Canary Islands after making the long, dangerous journey in rickety open wooden boats that set off from beaches, rivers and mangrove creeks from Mauritania to Guinea.
Hundreds are believed to have drowned and several thousand were repatriated to their countries of origin.
Spanish officials say their sea and air patrols carried out with other EU partners off West Africa have helped to reduce migrants arrivals in the Canaries by as much as two thirds this year. But young Africans lured by a dream of wealth and jobs in Europe were still attempting the risky trip in their hundreds.
''There's no doubt we're seeing a temporary pick-up,'' a European diplomat who follows migration closely told Reuters.
MISSING RELATIVES He said the pick-up was the result of the end of the rainy season and improved weather conditions at this time of year between Mauritania's northern Cap Blanc and the Canaries.
In downtown Banjul, hundreds of people gathered outside the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital searching for missing relatives they believed may have made the ill-fated voyage.
''We are very sad. It's unfortunate that our youths only have in their minds the idea of going to Europe rather than thinking of staying to participate in national development,'' said Ousman Jobe, who was looking for his nephew. Fearing prosecution, most of the survivors of the capsize had gone into hiding.
Last week, police in Mauritania said at least 47 migrants had died trying to reach the Canaries after drifting for more than two weeks off the west coast of Africa in two boats.
In late October, a Spanish fishing boat found seven corpses and one survivor in an open-topped wooden boat adrift in West African Atlantic waters 21 days after it had set off.
The lone survivor said 56 other passengers drowned, starved or killed themselves in despair after losing their way.
Spain has signed migration cooperation accords with some West African governments. These envisage more jobs for legal migrants, and offer more development aid for projects aimed at keeping young Africans in work at home.
REUTERS PJ HT2104