Hundreds of refugees feared dead in shipwrecks off Libya

Almost 180 refugees were pulled to safety in the Mediterranean on Thursday – but as many as 240 were feared drowned in two shipwrecks off the Libyan coast, according to reports.

The rescue vessel Topaz Responder – run by the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station and the Italian Red Cross – responded to the scene, where dozens of exhausted and panicking people fell from their dinghies.

On Wednesday, a vessel carrying about 140 migrants capsized a few hours after setting off from Libya. Only 29 survived, UN refugee agency UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami told AFP.

The Norwegian Siem Pilot was the first rescue ship to arrive on the scene, about 20 nautical miles off Libya. The survivors were in poor health after spending hours in the water. A dozen bodies were retrieved.

The rescued migrants were transferred to the island of Lampedusa by the Italian coast guard. Among them were two women who said they believed they were the only survivors from a shipwreck in which about 125 people drowned.

“They told us they were on a faulty dinghy which began to sink as soon as they set sail. They were the only survivors,” Sami said.

Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said 4,220 lives have been lost in the Mediterranean so far this year.

The increased number of deaths this year is partly due to the fact that smugglers are often using rubber dinghies, which are prone to deflating, UNHCR officials told AP.

In addition, more migrants suffer severe burns from being exposed to fuel mixed with sea water in the bottom of the dinghies.

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