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16 dead, dozens missing in shipwrecks off Tunisia, Western Sahara

By AFP - Aug 07,2023 - Last updated at Aug 07,2023

Libyan border guards provide water to migrants of African origin who reportedly have been abandoned by Tunisian authorities, following their arrival in an uninhabited area near Al Assah on the Libya-Tunisia border, on July 30 (AFP photo)

TUNIS — Sixteen migrants have died in shipwrecks off the coasts of Tunisia and Western Sahara, officials said on Monday, as North Africa faces a spike in Europe-bound sea crossings.

Much of the North African coast has become a major gateway for irregular migrants and asylum seekers primarily from other parts of the continent, attempting perilous voyages in often rickety boats in the hopes of a better life.

At least 11 migrants died in a shipwreck off the coast of Tunisia's second city of Sfax, said local court spokesman Faouzi Masmoudi, revising an earlier toll of four fatalities.

Another 44 are missing while two others were rescued from the boat that had 57 people on board, all of them from sub-Saharan African countries, Masmoudi added.

Survivors of the sinking, near Tunisia's Kerkennah Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, said the makeshift boat had departed over the weekend from a beach north of the coastal city of Sfax.

Masmoudi told AFP coastguard units were searching for more survivors.

The distance between Sfax and Italy's Lampedusa island is only about 130 kilometres.

Authorities in Morocco meanwhile said the bodies of five migrants, all from Senegal, had been recovered while 189 had been rescued after their boat capsized off Western Sahara.

The five bodies as well as 11 migrants in "critical condition" were transferred to a hospital in Dakhla, the disputed Western Sahara's second city on the Atlantic coast, a military source told Rabat's state-owned MAP news agency.

According to the source, the boat had embarked from "a country located south of the kingdom" and was headed towards Spain's Canary Islands before being discovered off the coast of Guerguart, just north of Mauritania.

It was in a "difficult situation", the source added.

The migrants who were rescued, including at least one woman, were taken to Dakhla on Sunday and handed over to Moroccan authorities, according to the source.

Migrant deaths have surged in recent years as thousands flee war or crushing poverty, seeking to cross the Mediterranean in the hopes of finding better lives in Europe.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), outbreaks of cholera and measles have already been reported in parts of the country that have been nearly impossible for relief missions to access.

More than 80 per cent of Sudan’s hospitals are no longer in service, the WHO said, while the few health facilities that remain often come under fire and struggle to provide care.

The conflict, which erupted in the capital Khartoum on April 15, has displaced more than three million people internally with many in urgent need of aid, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Nearly a million others have fled across borders seeking safety, it said.

Aid groups repeatedly complain of security challenges, bureaucratic hurdles and targeted attacks that prevent them from delivering much-needed assistance.

Again on Monday, Khartoum’s densely populated neighbourhoods were pummelled by rockets and heavy artillery fire, witnesses told AFP.

The fighting between army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and his former deputy, RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, has killed more than 3,900 people, according to a conservative estimate by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

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