Up to 500 Feared Dead in Mediterranean Shipwreck
Smugglers were transferring the migrants to a larger boat in choppy waters
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 20, 2016 1:54 PM CDT
The hand of a migrant grasps a fence after arriving at the Catania harbor in Italy last year.   (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, Files)

(Newser) – Up to 500 people are feared dead after a shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea last week, UN refugee agency UNHCR said Wednesday. The AP reports the disaster happened in waters between Italy and Libya, based on accounts from 41 survivors who were rescued on April 16 by a merchant ship. If confirmed, it would be one of the deadliest tragedies on the Mediterranean in the last year. The survivors said they had been among 100 to 200 people who left a town near Tobruk, Libya, on a smugglers' boat last week. The agency said Wednesday that "after sailing for several hours, the smugglers in charge of the boat attempted to transfer the passengers to a larger ship carrying hundreds of people in terribly overcrowded conditions."

"At one point during the transfer, the larger boat capsized and sank," UNHCR said in a statement. Barbara Molinario, a Rome-based spokeswoman for UNHCR, said details remained unclear and its staffers didn't want to press the survivors too hard "as they are still very tried by their experience." The statements offered the most official comment yet following repeated news reports about the incident in recent days. More than 1 million migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean last year—mostly refugees from war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria fleeing to Greece, and the European Union, via Turkey. However, the longer Libya-Italy route has traditionally seen more deaths.