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Over 100 people feared dead in shipwreck off Libya, says UNHCR

Similar number of people rescued and returned to Libyan shores, after what could be the deadliest shipwreck in the Mediterranean this year
426 people have perished this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean in overpacked boats (AFP)

Up to 116 people are feared dead after a boat carrying them in the Mediterranean Sea sunk off the coast of Libya, the United Nations' refugee agency said on Thursday.

The UNHCR noted that the number of dead could be the highest death toll for a shipwreck in the Mediterranean this year. 

Ayoub Qassem, a Libyan navy spokesperson, said there were about 250 people on board, mainly from Eritrea and other sub-Saharan African and Arab countries, when the boat capsized. He confirmed that at least 116 people are missing, with another 132 rescued by Libyan coastguards and local fishermen. 

Qassem said that the fisherman had taken those rescued back to shore after their wooden boat capsized off the coast of Komas, a Libyan town east of Tripoli.

A Libyan navy spokesperson said a fisherman had taken people rescued back to shore after their wooden boat capsized (MEE)

Earlier, the UN refugee agency said that up to 150 people were feared dead in a shipwreck while another 150 were rescued. 

Libya is a main departure point for people from Africa fleeing poverty and war and trying to reach the European Union, which provides funds to the Libyan Coast Guard as part of its efforts to reduce the numbers crossing the Mediterranean.

The latest shipwreck takes the death toll of Mediterranean migrants to over 600 this year, putting 2019 on track to be the sixth year in a row with more than 1,000 deaths, UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley said.

"Until we address the reasons why people take these dangerous boat journeys, sadly, this is unlikely to be the last tragedy like this that we see," he said.

Yaxley said survivors of the wreck were likely to be brought to two detention centres in Libya where they would face further risks, and he called for their immediate release.

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"We know that inside these detention centres there's insufficient food, water, often unsanitary conditions, there have been widespread reports of human rights violations taking place," he said.

Several UN agencies have called on rescue ships to not send people back to Libya where they are kept in inhumane conditions and subject to abuse. 

Earlier this month, an air strike hit a detention centre in a Tripoli suburb, killing 44 people and severely injuring at least 130 others.  

UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame condemned the strike, saying it "clearly amounts to the level of a war crime".

The UN has called for an independent inquiry into the attack widely blamed on eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, which struck the centre that was housing more than 600 people at the time. 

Thirty-eight people rescued at sea, most of them Egyptians, were transferred to the Tajoura centre yesterday, even though Libyan authorities announced its closure earlier this month.

Human rights activists have accused politicians in the European Union of turning a blind eye and letting people die rather than risk a voter backlash by appearing soft on immigration. Europe struggled to cope with an influx of more than one million refugees and migrants in 2015.

Italy, many African migrants' intended first destination, has taken a tough line since a populist government took office in 2018, and immediately sought to close the nation's ports to rescued migrants.