Portuguese merchant ship rescues only migrant survivors from last weekend’s tragedy off Libyan coast

A Portuguese merchant vessel registered in Madeira is reported as having rescued the only survivors from last weekend’s tragedy off the Libyan coast where as many as 900 men, women and children are thought to have drowned.

As EU leaders finally face-up to the ongoing humanitarian crisis that sees hundreds set out for Europe from Africa in overcrowded boats almost every week, the sequence of what led to last weekend’s appalling tragedy is slowly being pieced together.

According to the BBC, it was the approach of the Portuguese ship King Jacob that actually caused the migrant ship to capsize.

“The migrants reportedly fell overboard when they rushed to draw the attention of the passing Portuguese merchant ship King Jacob,” the British news service reported on Sunday.

The UK Guardian confirmed the story, saying the “migrants saw a merchant ship in the distance and scrambled to attract its attention, over-balancing the fishing boat in which they were travelling”.

The King Jacob – owned by German shipping company König & Cie – “launched lifeboats, nets and lifejackets into the water, but the operation was made more difficult by the adverse conditions of the sea,” Portugal’s Correio da Manhã elaborated on the rescue.

The hugely overcrowded migrant boat capsized, with hundreds “locked below decks” and therefore unable to escape.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees told the BBC that the sinking “could amount to the largest loss of life during a migrant crossing to Europe”.

But as the recovery of bodies was shared by as many as 30 other vessels – most from the Italian navy – and three helicopters, 28 people rescued by the King Jacob were on their way, at last, to safety.

CM reports that only days before the King Jacob had rescued 500 “illegals from another boat in trouble” and that these had then been transported to the Sicilian port of Palermo.

Among survivors of that rescue were “children and pregnant women, most of them from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria.”

The ship that went down at midnight on Saturday is understood to have set out from Egypt.

It capsized 96km off the Libyan coast and 193km south of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

As national and international media are reporting, this latest tragedy brings the migrant death toll in boat crossing to Europe this year to 1,500 – “at least 30 times higher than last year’s equivalent figure, which was itself a record”, the Guardian points out, adding that the sinking “comes just days after 400 others drowned last week in a similar incident”.

Meantime, King Jacob remained in the area assisting in the recovery effort.

Despite navigating under the Madeiran flag, the crew are all understood to be Filipino.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]

Photo: A migrant is carried on a stretcher as a group of migrants who were rescued at sea disembark from the ‘Zeran’ cargo ship at the harbour of Palermo, Italy, on April 18 2015