Three babies died off the coast of Libya while 100 people remained missing in the latest Mediterranean migrant shipwreck, as European leaders reached a hard-fought deal to tackle the issue.
Around 120 migrants were aboard the inflatable craft when it ran into trouble on Friday, according to survivors taken to Al-Hmidiya, east of the capital Tripoli.
Just 16 were rescued, while the missing included two babies and three children under the age of 12.
Survivors who made it back to Libyan soil recounted their ordeal following their pre-dawn departure from Garaboulli, east of Tripoli.
During the journey there was an explosion on board, after which the motor caught fire and the vessel began taking on water, they said.
The passengers included several Moroccan families, none of whom survived, together with Syrians and Sudanese, they said.
“When I saw the number of people on the boat, I refused to get on board, because we had been told that we would be 20 (passengers),” said 26-year-old survivor Amri Swileh from Yemen.
Showing his bruised arms, he said smugglers threatened to shoot him and forced him onto the boat, which was just 8m long.
“I saw people burn,” he said. “I lost all of my Yemeni friends who were with me. All five of them are missing.”
While there were up to 15 women on board, the 16 rescued passengers were all young men.
The shipwreck came after European Union leaders reached an agreement aimed at sharing the responsibility for hosting migrants more fairly across the bloc, although strong differences between countries remain.
The agreement includes plans to set up secure centres in Europe to process arrivals’ claims. The Brussels pact also proposes setting up “disembarkation platforms” outside the EU as a way to reduce the number of people taking the perilous sea journey.
But cracks are already starting to emerge. EU president Donald Tusk warned there was no guarantee it would work, while France and Austria ruled themselves out as hosts.
The poorly equipped Libyan coastguard was forced to abandon most of the bodies of migrants who died in Friday’s shipwreck “for lack of resources”, said coastguard captain Salem al-Qadhi.
He said he was shocked when his vessel reached the site, adding: “It was horrible to see.”
Fishermen had spotted the vessel in difficulty and contacted the Libyan coastguard.
Another survivor, 17-year-old Kobrem, said he clung to a rope attached to the wrecked boat for two hours until rescuers arrived.
“Each of the other survivors held onto something, mostly empty containers,” added the teenager, who said he paid smugglers around US$400 (S$550) for the crossing.
“I saw people die: babies, children, women, men,” he said.
There were further rescues off the coast of Garaboulli on Friday, with 345 migrants saved from three boats, said navy spokesman Ayoub Kacem.
The Libyan authorities have been involved in the rescue of hundreds of migrants in recent days. On June 18, five bodies were recovered and over 100 people saved after being shipwrecked off the Libyan coast.
Nearly 1,000 migrants were rescued last Sunday from multiple inflatable boats which had run into trouble during perilous bids to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.