TRIPOLI, Libya — Hundreds were feared dead Tuesday in the chilly waters of the Mediterranean Sea, days after an overcrowded wooden fishing boat packed with migrants seeking a better life in Europe capsized in stormy waters off the coast of Libya.
A few survivors — those who could swim — were rescued, but authorities pulled 21 bodies from the waters and at least 200 more were still missing after the boat capsized Friday. It is believed to be the deadliest migrant ship accident between North Africa and Europe in recent memory, an international migration official said.
Thousands of African, Asian and Middle Eastern migrants fleeing wars and poverty use Libya and other North African countries as a launching pads for the journey across the Mediterranean to southern Europe — often in rickety, overloaded boats. Another flimsy vessel with about 350 migrants was rescued about a day later in the area where the fishing boat capsized.
While thousands make it safely, hundreds are believed to die in the journey each year. The route from Libya to an island off the coast of southern Italy is one of the most heavily traveled for illegal migrants trying to reach Europe.
The capsized boat, which a Libyan police official said had a capacity of just 50, overturned Friday in high winds with about 250 on board.
"It is hard to imagine that there are survivors among the missing by now," said Laurence Hart, an official based in Libya with the International Organization for Migration.
Libyan officials did not release any information on the accident until Tuesday, and by then, it appeared rescue efforts were over.
About 36,000 people made it from North Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa — the closest Italian point from Libya — in 2008, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration. That was a sharp increase from the 17,000 who arrived in 2007.