TUNIS, Tunisia — At least 17 migrants from Bangladesh drowned and more than 300 were rescued by Tunisian and Libyan naval units after their boat sank in the Mediterranean, according to aid groups Thursday.
Survivors said all those who died had been in the hold of the boat because they had paid smugglers less than others, and were suffocated by smoke when the engine caught fire, according to Mongi Slim, head of the Tunisian Red Crescent.
There has been a spike in crossings and attempted migrant boat crossings to Europe from Libya in recent months.
The boat initially had around 400 migrants on board, 200 of whom were picked up by units of the Libyan navy, Slim said.
Tunisian naval units retrieved 17 bodies and rescued 166 migrants, including others from Bangladesh as well as people from Morocco, Egypt, Syria and Ivory Coast, he said.
The boat left last Monday night off the coast of Zouara, Libya, with the aim of reaching Europe, and sank off the Tunisian port of Zarzis, Slim said.
Libya’s coast guard intercepted Wednesday four boats in the Mediterranean Sea carrying migrants trying to reach Europe, a U.N. official said. According to the migrants, 20 people from one of the vessels had gone overboard earlier in the day and were presumed to have drowned.
Earlier this week, the Tunisian coast guard thwarted eight illegal migration attempts and arrested 130 migrants, according to National Guard spokesman Houssameddine Jebabli.
Safa Msehli, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, said seven vessels smuggling hundreds of migrants were intercepted Tuesday and Wednesday off Libya’s coast. Around 500 migrants were returned to shore and taken to a detention center in Tripoli.
Libya has in recent years emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.