Athens, Jun 3: More than 110 bodies were pulled from the sea off Libya's shores today after a smuggling boat carrying mainly African migrants sank into the Mediterranean, and a separate massive search-and-rescue operation in the open sea saved 340 people and recovered nine bodies.
The two sinkings were the latest deadly disasters for refugees and migrants hoping to find better lives in Europe, and came in addition to the over 1,000 people who drowned since May 25 while attempting the perilous, lengthy journey across the sea from North Africa to Europe's southern shores.
In Libya, at least 117 bodies - 75 women, six children and 36 men - were pulled out from the waters near the western city of Zwara, Mohammed al-Mosrati, a spokesman for Libya's Red Crescent, told AP. All but a few were from African countries.
The death toll was expected to rise. No lifejackets were seen on photos Red Cross photos of the bodies.
But, as is frequently the case, authorities were uncertain when or how the people died. Libyan coast guards found an empty boat drifting yesterday, Libyan navy Col. Ayoub Gassim said, adding it was possible the vessel had capsized a day earlier.
Al-Mosrati of the Red Crescent said the bodies were not "decomposed and therefore have drowned within the past 48 hours." He said 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 said, making it difficult for authorities to determine where the tragedy occurred. Speaking by telephone, Gassim of the Libyan navy blamed Europe for "doing nothing but counting bodies" in efforts to stop the massive illegal migration from Libya.
Aid officials say the last two weeks have been especially deadly because smugglers are using riskier tactics, bigger boats and even less-seaworthy vessels than ever before. William Spindler, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, noted new and far riskier tactics being used by traffickers.
The second boat capsized on May 26, drowning what his agency estimated was around 550 migrants. Another migrant boat sank elsewhere in the Mediterranean today, with Greek authorities saying 340 people were rescued and nine bodies recovered in a massive search-and-rescue operation involving Greek helicopters, aircraft, patrol boats and passing merchant ships.
Greece's coast guard said the roughly 25-meter vessel, which resembled a large fishing boat, had been carrying an undetermined number of people when it was located half-sunk about 75 nautical miles south of Crete in international waters.
It was not immediately clear where the boat was from, who it carried, or where it was trying to go. The coast guard said the operation was continuing to search for any potentially missing passengers. "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."