VALLETTA (AFP) — Seventy would-be illegal African immigrants to Europe perished when their boat sank in the Mediterranean Sea, according to eight companions rescued Wednesday off Malta, officials said.
If their tale is confirmed, it would be one of the worst such incidents ever recorded off Malta, a target destination for Africans trying to reach Europe in often-flimsy watercraft.
The survivors were plucked out of the water by a Maltese fishing vessel, the Madonna di Pompei, from a semi-submerged dinghy 70 kilometres (40 nautical miles) off Malta, then transferred to a military patrol boat.
An Armed Forces of Malta twin-engine Islander patrol aircraft went out to the area to look for other survivors, but none were found.
It earlier emerged during police questioning that the original group consisted of 79 people -- all men, apart from eight women, four of them pregnant, and one child.
But a UN official later placed the original number at 78.
Investigations were continuing, a police spokesman told AFP.
The passengers, all African, had apparently set sail from Libya last Thursday and hit bad weather, said Neil Falzon, a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Malta, who met with the survivors.
Four of those dead were women, three of them pregnant, he said.
"On Monday, the rubber dinghy started taking water and it overturned with the immigrants drowned," Falzon said. "They just kept holding on to the dinghy until last night they were spotted by the Maltese fishing vessel."
He identified the immigrants as Eritreans, Ghanaians, Somalians and Sudanese, according to news reports.
"My appeal goes to the government to release these immigrants from the detention centre because of their health and traumatic conditions," Falzon said, adding that three needed urgent medical care.
Malta, the smallest of the 27 EU member states, is a target for Africans trying to get into Europe by boat from North Africa, with Libya being the most common point of departure.
Some 1,700 illegal immigrants landed on Malta in 2007, according to an AFP count.
On Sunday, more than 100 illegal immigrants were brought ashore in two separate operations off Malta.
The last case of serious loss of life off Malta came in May 2007 when 53 would-be immigrants perished at sea.
"Nothwithstanding that they know about (previous) tragedies, these desperate people still try and make the journey to Europe," Falzon said.
Some 380 illegal immigrants have died at sea over the first six months of this year in the Sicily Canal, the Mediterranean strip between Sicily and Tunisia, the aid charity Doctors Without Borders estimates.
About 500 died there in 2006.
Elsewhere on the Mediterranean, the crew of a Dubai-bound ship discovered 14 stowaways aboard off the coast of Algeria this week. It turned them all over to the Algerian authorities, coast-guard officials in Algiers said Wednesday.
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