Italian coast guard says 85 people rescued and eight bodies recovered so far. Last year, 3,116 people died trying to cross from North Africa to Europe, according to Doctors Without Borders.

A Libyan coast guard stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 refugees and immigrants attempting to reach Europe off the coastal town of Zawiyah, 45 kilometres west of the capital Tripoli, on June 27, 2017.
A Libyan coast guard stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 refugees and immigrants attempting to reach Europe off the coastal town of Zawiyah, 45 kilometres west of the capital Tripoli, on June 27, 2017. (AFP Archive)

 A Libyan navy spokesman says at least 25 refugees and migrants have drowned off the North African nation's coast while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

Brigadier General Ayoub Qassim says the refugees' boat capsized and sank in international waters and that the Libyan navy did not have the resources to rush to their rescue.

Qassim said on Saturday that the boat sailed off Garbouli, east of the Libyan capital Tripoli with more than 100 people on board. 

He speculated that bad weather conditions may have caused the boat to capsize.

The Italian coast guard said 85 people had been rescued from the sinking vessel, and eight bodies recovered so far.

First of the year

It was believed to be the first shipwreck of 2018 – though rescue organisations say countless dinghies attempting to cross the Mediterranean are likely to sink without a trace, meaning the year's death toll may have begun even earlier.

The alarm was sounded after a surveillance aircraft deployed in the EU anti-trafficking mission Sophia spotted the partly-submerged dinghy some 64 kilometres off the Libyan coast, in international waters.

"Shipwreck off the coast of Libya, east of Tripoli. Dozens of people missing who will die without a burial," tweeted the Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms.

Sea Watch said it had been alerted to the disaster by the coast guard, which believed 150 people had been aboard.

"The search continues for survivors," said the coast guard, which was aided in the rescue by a navy vessel.

Drop in arrivals

Last year, 3,116 people died trying to cross from North Africa to Europe, according to Doctors Without Borders.

Italian-led efforts to prevent people from setting out saw a sharp drop in the number of arrivals in the second half of 2017.

While refugees who made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in rickety boats still numbered nearly 119,000, it was a roughly one-third drop over the previous year.

The drop has been attributed to a controversial combination of an Italian-led boosting of the Libyan coastguard's ability to intercept boats and efforts to seek the assistance of powerful militias.

In the first six days of 2018, over 400 people have been brought to safety in Italy, the interior ministry said, compared to 729 in the same period last year.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies