Friday, October 26, 2007

Over 50 African migrants feared dead in Atlantic

Rescuers have found the bodies of seven African migrants in a boat adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, while almost 50 others are missing from the vessel trying to reach Spain's Canary Islands, Spanish authorities said Thursday.

"It was a Dantesque scene," said Jose Maria Abreu, the captain of a Spanish fishing boat that found the bodies.

"There was an exhausted man who was waving and seven bodies. There was an unbearable stench, they must have been dead six or seven days," he told Spain's radio Cadena Ser.

The Spanish boat discovered the seven bodies and one "very weak" survivor on the vessel north of Cape Verde, a spokesman for the rescue services said.

The survivor told the fishermen that "up to 50 people may have been on board" the boat, the spokesman told AFP.

"We know the boat left (Africa) with 57 passengers," Spain's interior ministry said, an indication that 49 others may also have perished.

Abreu said a hospital ship, the Esperanza de Mar, which sails the region to help Spanish fishermen, was coming to pick up the bodies.

Located off the coast of Morocco, the Canary Islands have been a magnet in recent years for mainly sub-Saharan immigrants aspiring to reach Europe.

More than 31,200 illegal immigrants arrived there last year, more than tripling the previous annual record and overwhelming the island chain's authorities.

But stepped-up maritime patrols off the west African coast by the European Union border agency Frontex have led to a dramatic reduction. More than 8,200 reached the islands since the beginning of this year.

But Spain fears that increased surveillance measures in Senegal, Morocco and Mauritania are now forcing traffickers to operate further south, notably in Guinea, using bigger boats capable of making the longer journey.

Spain's intelligence chief, Alberto Saiz, Thursday warned of a new wave of immigrants from Guinea.

He told journalists that many old fishing boats that had reached the end of their natural lives may be used to transport illegal immigrants.

Saiz was reacting to a report in the Spanish newspaper El Pais Thursday that said Spanish intelligence authorities are already watching about 50 such boats in the Guinean capital of Conakry. It said a journey between Guinea and the Canary Islands was too long for the small motor boats.


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