As many as 64 refugees are feared dead after a traffickers' overcrowded rubber dinghy from Libya started sinking in the Mediterranean Sea, officials said Monday.
The Italian coast guard rescued 86 people from the boat hours after it started sinking Saturday morning due to a puncture. Specially trained rescue divers leapt into the water to pull dozens to safety, including those who managed to stay aboard the half-submerged dinghy as well as others already flailing in the cool waters around it. The bodies of eight dead women were also recovered.
Since trafficking dinghies are often crammed with far more than 100 refugees, fears quickly arose that dozens more could be missing in the sinking. UN officials said Monday that accounts from survivors bore out those fears.
An Italian coast guard search that went through the night didn't find any more survivors or corpses.
Flavio Di Giacomo of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a tweet Monday that survivors interviewed by the agency in Catania, Sicily, after they arrived on a rescue ship said 150 people had been aboard the dinghy when it set out from the coast of Libya.
"Sixty-four migrants lost their life in the shipwreck (which) occurred last Saturday," Di Giacomo said, adding that "probably 56 missing migrants" were lost at sea.
"Among them there were many children who are believed to have drowned at sea," said Doctors Without Borders Sea on Twitter.
Catania Mayor Enzo Bianco told Italian Radio Radicale that among the survivors was a child who lost her mother.
"I watched a 3-year-old girl while she was starting to play at the port here. She was saved, grabbed at the last second by the coast guard in the sea," the mayor said. "She was clinging to her mother and she saw her drown."
Bianco said the child is now with her aunt, who was among the survivors.
The dinghy, half-submerged, had been spotted by an aircraft from a European naval mission combating refugee trafficking.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been rescued at sea and taken to southern Italian ports in the last few years, including nearly 119,000 last year. Another 3,100 drowned along the way in 2017, the IOM says.
They include refugees fleeing wars or persecution who hope to receive asylum as well as economic refugees, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, who aren't eligible to be granted permission to live in Europe.
Italy is working with various groups and authorities in Libya to slow the flow of newcomers.
Di Giacomo couldn't immediately be reached for further details on the weekend survivors.