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Thirty missing, 17 rescued as boat capsizes north of Libya

The boat with 47 people on board was heading towards Italy and capsized 177 km north of Benghazi.

Thirty people are missing and 17 have been rescued in the central Mediterranean after the boat they were traveling from Libya capsized in bad weather, the Italian coastguard said.

Rescue operations were underway, supported by merchant ships and from the air by Frontex, the European Union’s border service, while two more merchant vessels headed for the area, the Coast Guard said in a statement on Sunday.

Earlier on Sunday, the Mediterranea Saving Humans charity had tweeted that the ship had capsized about 110 miles (177 km) northwest of Benghazi on its way to Italy, according to several sources.

Alarm Phone – another charity that picks up calls from migrant ships in distress – said on Twitter it had first alerted authorities on Saturday, insisting that the boat, which had 47 people on board, needed immediate rescue.

After an initial rescue attempt of a merchant vessel failed due to bad weather, Libyan authorities turned to Rome for help as they lacked the resources to carry out the rescue, the coast guard statement said.

Rome subsequently requested merchant ships in the area to join the rescue efforts, noting that the capsizing occurred outside Italy’s search and rescue area.

However, the migrant ship capsized while attempting to transfer people on the merchant ship “FROLAND” on Sunday morning, it said.

Mediterranea’s head of the mission, Luca Casarini, told Reuters news agency that four merchant ships were still in the area.

Italy’s ability to rescue refugees and migrants at sea has come under scrutiny after a shipwreck on February 26 near the southern region of Calabria left at least 79 people dead.

The Italian government is facing a backlash after sharp criticism that it did not intervene in time to save the passengers.

On Saturday, the coastguard said more than 1,300 migrants and refugees had been rescued in three separate operations off Italy’s southern tip, and another 200 off the coast of Sicily.

Alarm Phone tweeted earlier Sunday that three merchant vessels were on the scene, but said it did not know if a rescue operation was underway as it had lost contact with the boat.

An earlier tweet from Alarm Phone said one of the ships, the Basilis L, was watching the boat as it waited for the arrival of the Libyan coastguard, “to force the people back to Libya where they had tried to escape” .

SeaWatch, a German NGO, tweeted on Saturday that its surveillance aircraft spotted the migrant boat which was “dangerously overcrowded and in frightening waves”.

Nearby was β€œa merchant ship ordered by the rescue coordination center in Rome to coordinate with the Libyan coastguard,” it said.

About two hours later on Saturday, SeaWatch tweeted again, reporting, “As the weather worsens and intervention becomes difficult, Tripoli claims it cannot send a patrol boat.”

β€œIn the past, the Italian authorities have often coordinated a rescue operation in this area. We ask that the same be done to prevent further deaths.”