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Refugees saved after boat flips in the Mediterranean

Images released by the Italian navy on Wednesday captured the moment when an overcrowded boat capsized off Libya, leaving at least five people dead.

The blue fishing vessel, its deck heaving with people, tipped over after the migrants rushed to one side after they spotted a rescue ship — a frequent mistake that has led to many disasters in the Mediterranean.

The migrants, many of them men, some wearing orange life jackets as a precaution, were captured in rare photographs as they clung to the boat’s rails or each other, or dropped like stones into the sea.

Some are seen hanging on to the starboard edge by their fingertips as the trawler rolls, while others try to balance on the rim.

Pictures taken seconds later show the churning water around the boat peppered with people trying to get away from the vessel, which, now upside down, begins to sink. Four people perch on its upturned hull.

The navy said its Bettica patrol boat had spotted “a boat in precarious conditions off the coast of Libya with numerous migrants aboard” but the trawler capsized shortly afterwards “because of overcrowding”.

The Bettica threw life rafts and jackets to those in the water, and another navy ship in the area sent a helicopter and rescue boats.

Survivors can be seen in the photographs wearing life rings, some swimming towards the Bettica as the helicopter whirrs overhead. The navy said 562 people had been pulled  to safety.

The rescue operation wound up late on Wednesday without finding any further survivors or victims.

The migrants had sounded the alarm by calling for help on a satellite phone.

The Bettica went on to pluck another 108 migrants from their dilapidated vessel in a second rescue operation on Wednesday.

It is not the first time a boat making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean has capsized because of sudden movement on board when help is in sight.

In August last year, a Palestinian survivor of just such a shipwreck described the moment the boat rolled as “like being flung from a catapult”. 

“I could only see heads, all around, amid the waves, everyone pushing down on everyone else to try and stay afloat.”

According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 1 370 migrants have lost their lives so far this year when they attempted the crossing to Europe.

The latest arrivals bring the number of people rescued and transferred to Italy since the start of the year to nearly 40?000. More than 6?000 people have been rescued since Monday, according to figures collated by the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Italian coastguard.

The overwhelming majority of those arriving in Italy so far this year have been from sub-Saharan Africa.

Italian media reports warned that the number of minors arriving was on the rise. A nine-month-old baby girl, whose mother died during a crossing this week, was being looked after by cultural mediators in the reception centre on Lampedusa island south of Sicily, La Repubblica reported.

The UNHCR, aid organisations and the Italian government say there is no sign yet of Middle Eastern refugees switching to the Libyan route to Europe following moves to restrict access from Turkey through the Greek islands. — AFP

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Ella Ide
Ella Ide
Writing and Editing AFP.

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