The overcrowded boat that the migrants were traveling on overturned during a cargo ship’s attempt to save them off the coast of Libya, according to Italy’s coastguard, leaving about 30 people missing and believed dead.
The coastguard reported that following the early-morning attempt at the rescue in a search-and-rescue zone under Libyan jurisdiction, seventeen migrants were saved and a search was ongoing for the missing.
The coastguard said that as rescue efforts were being made, the boat overturned as the migrants were being transferred. 17 persons were saved and recovered by the (freight) vessel, but about 30 migrants were still missing.
Just two weeks ago, a shipwreck off the Calabrian coast of southern Italy claimed the lives of at least 76 people, and bodies were still washing up almost every day.
Due to the shipwreck, Italy’s far-right government is on the defensive as it tries to deflect harsh criticism that it did not act quickly enough to save the migrants.
An organization that tracks migrant boats called Alarm Phone claimed it was contacted by a boat in trouble about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Benghazi and notified Italian police early on Saturday morning.
Also, a German Charity called SeaWatch’s surveillance plane saw the boat and stated that it was “dangerously packed and in scary seas.”
Alarm Phone had alerted Rome’s rescue coordination center and Maltese and Libyan officials about the boat, according to a statement from Italy’s coastguard.
The coast guard said that a merchant ship that had approached the boat after receiving a SeaWatch signal reported problems rescuing the boat due to heavy weather.
According to the coastguard, Libyan authorities were in charge of search and rescue operations in that area. They reported “a lack of availability of naval equipment” and contacted Rome for assistance, which sent three more nearby merchant ships to the area.
As the ship “Froland” arrived at the scene early on Sunday morning, a rescue effort was launched; however, the coast guard reported that the boat overturned during the effort.
The ship sailed to Malta to discharge two migrants who had been brought aboard safely but required immediate medical attention.
Two Frontex planes and merchant ships were reportedly still looking for the missing in the region.
“The rescue operation took place outside the Italian SAR (search-and-rescue) area of responsibility, recording the inactivity of the other National Maritime Coordination and Rescue Centres involved in the area,” the coastguard said.
The weather was making rescue efforts challenging, according to a tweet from SeaWatch on Saturday, and “Tripoli claims it is unable to dispatch a patrol boat.”
The Libyan coastguard should not be allowed to “push the people back to Libya, where they had wanted to escape from,” Alarm Phone pleaded in a tweet earlier on Sunday after losing communication with the boat.