A wooden boat carrying up to 200 migrants who were trying to reach Europe has sunk just one kilometre off the Libyan coast, the coast guard said on Saturday, and most passengers were feared drowned.
The body of an 18-month-old child was pulled from the water as rescue operations continued off the shores of al-Qarbouli, 50 kilometres east of the capital Tripoli.
A little more than a dozen migrants have been rescued, officials said.
The local coast guard said it had no boats of its own and had to commandeer fishing vessels in a rescue attempt after fishermen raised the alarm on Saturday morning.
Migrants have been streaming out of North Africa in rickety boats in rising numbers for years. Many head for Italy, and so far this year, the total number reaching Italian shores has passed 100,000, the Italian government said this week.
Libya is a major departure point for this journey, and human traffickers are exploiting the political chaos and lack of security that has blighted the country since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in an uprising in 2011.
The small boat crammed with between 150-200 migrants sank late on Friday near Qarabouli, east of Tripoli, local coast guard official Mohammad Abdellatif told Reuters Television.
Local fishermen raised the alarm at dawn on Saturday morning and the coast guard managed to rescue 16 migrants who were still alive in the water, surrounded by bodies, Abdellatif said.
The boat had entirely disappeared when the coast guard arrived at the scene, around a kilometre from the beach, he said.
But navy spokesman Ayoub Qassem estimated that the coast guard “rescued 17 of the illegal migrants”, and said a search was under way.
All of those rescued were released as there was nowhere to detain them, Abdellatif said. He said he had informed the local hospital, the ministry of health and the criminal investigations department of the accident but that all three had refused to collect the bodies.
In recent weeks, Libya has seen the worst violence since the 2011 rebellion as rival factions battle each other for influence and control of the country’s wealth.
Foreign embassies and agencies have evacuated their staff and the entire parliament has decamped to the country’s east.
State authority has crumbled and basic services are becoming increasingly more difficult to come by.
“The coast guard has no problem with searching for the missing illegal migrants, but the problem is who will receive them after finding them,” Libya’s navy spokesman Ayoub Qassem said.
“They have no locations to accept them and the immigration authorities are not helpful enough to receive them on time,” he said.
The Italian navy said they were not involved in the incident and had no further details.
Italy is carrying out the bulk of patrols in the Mediterranean Sea aimed at preventing major tragedies involving migrants. More than 70,000 people have been rescued through the “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea) mission of patrols which Italy began last October.
With additional reporting from Associated Press