74 dead asylum-seekers wash up on Libyan beach from boat with no engine

The bodies of 74 asylum-seekers who drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe have washed up on a beach west of the Libyan capital

As of Sunday, 10,120 had arrived in Italy from Libya compared with 6,589 between January 1 and February 18 last year
As of Sunday, 10,120 had arrived in Italy from Libya compared with 6,589 between January 1 and February 18 last year

The bodies of at least 74 asylum-seekers have been found washed up on the shore in western Libya after the engine of their inflatable boat was stolen, coastguard and aid officials said on Tuesday.

The Libyan Red Crescent said on Tuesday the bodies had been found the previous morning on the coast of the city of Zawiya, and aid workers had spent six hours recovering them, with more dead believed to be in the vicinity.

Spokesman Mohamed al-Misrati said that the asylum-seekers appeared to have died during the past two days. They were all adults, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries, and all but three were men.

A torn rubber boat was found nearby and it was likely that more asylum-seekers had drowned in the incident, as such vessels usually carry about 120 people, al-Misrati added.

The Zawiya coastguard posted a video that showed the asylum-seekers' boat, with no engine, as the first bodies were recovered.

The Red Crescent published pictures of the bodies laid out in white and black body bags along the beach. Some of the images showed a semi-deflated grey rubber boat of the kind typically provided by migrant smugglers, with wooden boards inserted to reinforce the floor, pulled up half-way onto the beach close by.

The Red Crescent published pictures of the bodies laid out in white and black body bags along the beach
The Red Crescent published pictures of the bodies laid out in white and black body bags along the beach

Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said a local staff member had reported that "traffickers came and removed the engine from the boat and left the craft adrift".

"This is not a only horrible number of deaths in one incident but it strikes us as something that we haven't really seen much of, which is either deliberate punishment or murder of asylum-seekers," Millman said.

Libya is the main departure point for asylum-seekers hoping to reach Europe by sea and people smugglers have taken advantage of the chaos gripping Libya since the 2011 revolution to greatly boost their lucrative trade.

Asylum-seekers generally attempt the crossing in flimsy inflatable craft loaded with small amounts of fuel which are intended to get them only as far as European rescue vessels stationed in international waters. Most leave from the stretch of Libyan coast between Tripoli and the Tunisian border to the west. The bodies of those who drown are frequently found washed up on Libyan shores.

Last year a record 181,000 asylum-seekers crossed between Libya and Italy. More than 4,500 are known to have died. The IOM said the latest incident raised the total number of deaths this year to more than 365.

As of Sunday, 10,120 had arrived compared with 6,589 between January 1 and February 18 last year.

Having largely closed off sea crossings between Turkey and Greece last year, the European Union is searching for ways to stem the flow of asylum-seekers from Libya.

This month European leaders offered Libya money and other assistance to try to reduce the numbers departing across the Mediterranean. The deal involves blocking asylum-seekers at sea and sending back to Libya to be held in holding camps. Aid groups criticised the move, saying such plans exposed asylum-seekers to further risks and abuses within Libya.

In the absence of an army or a regular police force in Libya, several militias act as coastguards but are often accused themselves of complicity or even involvement in the people-smuggling business.

More in World