TRIPOLI, Libya — A wooden boat carrying up to 200 migrants sank half a mile off the Libyan coast, the country’s coast guard said Saturday, and most passengers were feared drowned.
The local coast guard said it had no boats of its own and had to commandeer fishing vessels in a rescue attempt after fishermen raised the alarm Saturday morning.
Migrants have been streaming out of northern Africa in rickety boats in rising numbers for years. Many head for Italy, and this year the number reaching Italian shores has passed 100,000, the Italian government said last week.
Libya is a major departure point for this journey, and human traffickers are exploiting the political chaos and lack of security that has blighted the country since Moammar Gaddafi was toppled in a 2011 uprising.
The small boat crammed with 150 to 200 migrants sank late Friday near Qarabouli, east of Tripoli, local coast guard official Mohammad Abdellatif told Reuters Television.
After fishermen raised the alarm at dawn, the coast guard rescued 16 migrants in the water who were surrounded by bodies, Abdellatif said.
The coast guard in Qarabouli has no equipment and is forced to borrow fishing vessels and tugboats to carry out rescue missions, he added.
All of those rescued were released because there was nowhere to detain them, Abdellatif said. He said that he had informed the local hospital, the Health Ministry and the criminal investigations department about the accident but that all three had refused to collect the bodies.
In recent weeks, Libya has seen the worst violence since the 2011 rebellion as rival factions battle for influence and control of the country’s wealth. Foreign embassies and agencies have evacuated their staff, and the parliament has decamped to the country’s east.
State authority has crumbled, and basic services are becoming increasingly more difficult to come by.
“The coast guard has no problem with searching for the missing illegal migrants, but the problem is who will receive them after finding them,” said Libya’s navy spokesman, Ayoub Qassem.