GENEVA — About 500 Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Sudanese are feared to have died after their boat was rammed and sank off the Malta coast last week, the International Organization for Migration said Monday.
The group of migrant workers was undertaking a perilous journey from the Egyptian port of Damietta, seeking a better life in Europe, when their boat was overtaken by human traffickers equipped with two vessels on Wednesday, said organization spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume.
According to the organization's interviews with two of the survivors, the human traffickers rammed the boat carrying the migrants with one of their vessels. The two survivors, both Palestinian, said there had been a violent confrontation between the migrants and the traffickers when the traffickers tried to move the migrants onto a smaller boat. Berthiaume told The Associated Press the traffickers "used one boat to knock the other" and that there were about nine known survivors in all.
The two Palestinians were rescued by a Panamanian-flagged container ship which brought them to Pozzallo, Italy. The other seven survivors were picked up by other boats that brought them to Crete, Greece and Malta.
Berthiaume said another boat carrying at least 250 African migrants to Europe capsized before leaving the coast near the Libyan capital on Monday, and that most were feared dead. A coast guard spokesman, Qassim Ayoub, told AP that dozens of bodies were being retrieved 18 kilometers (11 miles) off the coast of Tripoli's Tajoura district and that 36 African migrants, including three women — one of them pregnant — were rescued.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that so far this year 2,200 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean, compared to 700 in all of 2013. However, that does not include the two incidents off Malta and Libya, which could put the grim toll close to 3,000. More than 100,000 people have been rescued since January, the U.N. refugee agency said.
Refugee numbers have swelled as thousands of people flee conflicts in Syria, Iraq and across the Middle East and Africa, many of them boarding unsafe smugglers' boats in Libya.
"We cannot say how many might be missing" because the Italian Coast Guard didn't pick up those survivors who gave that account, said Lt. Alessandra Ventriglia. She said a search of the area, which lasted through Sunday, found no trace of the boat or the bodies.
Over this past weekend alone, Italian rescue operations helped save and bring to ports on both the mainland and in Sicily nearly 3,000 migrants.
Both the IOM and Ventriglia said the Panamanian-flagged container ship also rescued more than 380 people who were aboard another boat that sunk the Mediterranean during the past week.
On Sunday, Angelina Jolie met with surviving refugees on Malta and called on the world to "wake up" to the migrant crisis involving Mediterranean countries. The actress serves as special envoy for the United Nations' refugee agency.
Associated Press writers Frances D'Emilio in Rome and Esam Mohamed in Tripoli contributed to this report.