Boat carrying 91 migrants goes missing in Mediterranean

A rubber dinghy packed with 91 migrants and refugees that set out from Libya with hopes of reaching Europe appears to have gone missing in the Mediterranean, the UN migration agency said on Thursday.

The inflatable boat carrying mostly African migrants departed from al-Qarbouli, 50km (30 miles) east of the capital, Tripoli, on February 8, said Osman Haroun, whose cousin was on board.

He has not heard from the 27-year-old Mohamed Idris, or his 10 other friends also on the boat, since.

“It’s the first time I’ve heard of this happening,” Haroun told The Associated Press by phone from the western coastal district of Zawiya, where he has lived with his family since fleeing the conflict-ridden Darfur region of Sudan in 2016.

“Those who set out you usually hear from within a few hours … no one has even seen the boat’s remains.”

News of the missing boat comes amid criticism of a lack of European Union rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.

Member countries agreed earlier this week to end an anti-migrant smuggler operation involving only surveillance aircraft and instead deploy military ships to concentrate on upholding a widely flouted UN arms embargo that is considered key to winding down Libya‘s relentless war.

Alarm Phone, a crisis hotline for migrants in need of rescue at sea, drew attention on Thursday to what it called “an invisible shipwreck,” urging Libyan, Maltese and Italian authorities to share information about the day’s rescue missions.

It said a black rubber boat with 91 people on board, reportedly hailing from Sudan, Niger, Iran and Mali, called the hotline in distress at 3:30am on February 9.

The passengers managed to share their GPS coordinates minutes later, which put them in international waters north of Libya.

Alarm Phone passed the SOS to Italian and Maltese authorities and to the Libyan coast guard, an EU-trained force criticised by human rights groups, which patrols Mediterranean waters and intercepts migrants to keep them from reaching European shores.

The Libyan coast guard took five hours to respond to Alarm Phone’s urgent request, and said it dispatched two ships to search for the missing vessel, without providing evidence.

Alarm Phone lost contact with the boat more than two hours later, when it heard people panicking, saying the engine had failed. Migrants were slipping into the sea, they told the hotline, as water flooded the shrinking dinghy. -AP News Agency

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