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117 refugees feared dead after dinghy sinks off Libyan coast

The file photo shows a rescued asylum seeker having a meal on board a Dutch rescue vessel sailing on the Mediterranean Sea on January 5, 2019. (AFP)

More than a hundred asylum seekers headed to Europe are feared dead after their vessel sank off the coast of Libya.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Saturday that some 117 asylum seekers, who had departed from the northwest of the country in a rubber dinghy two days earlier, were feared to be dead.

Three people, rescued in the Mediterranean Sea, reported that the dinghy had sank.

"The three survivors told us they were 120 when they left Garabulli, in Libya, on Thursday night. After 10 to 11 hours at sea ... (the dinghy) started sinking and people started drowning," IOM spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said on Saturday.

The IOM spokesman added that ten women, including one pregnant woman, and two children, one of whom only two months old, were among the asylum seekers on board the ship who were unaccounted for.

He added that the asylum seekers aboard the dinghy were mostly from West Africa.

The sinking dinghy was first sighted by an Italian military plane. Later, a navy helicopter was dispatched to the area and rescued the three asylum seekers, who were suffering from severe hypothermia and were taken to a hospital on the island of Lampedusa.

An Italian commander told a local news station that during the rescue operation, the personnel aboard the helicopter had spotted at least three bodies of people who appeared to be dead in the water.

The Italian navy said it had alerted Libyan authorities who then coordinated a rescue operation, ordering a merchant ship to go to the site of the sinking vessel, though rescue efforts had ceased after the search for the dinghy had proved fruitless.

According to the IOM, 2,297 people trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe died or went missing in 2018.

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