ROME (AP) — At least eight migrants died and 86 others were rescued Saturday from a smugglers' rubber dinghy after it starting sinking in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya, the Italian coast guard said. A search was ongoing to find any more possible survivors.
An aid group not involved in the rescue said dozens of migrants could still be missing. The coast guard said there was no confirmation of Libyan authorities' statement that at least 25 migrants had died.
The Italian coast guard, which coordinates rescues in international waters off Libya's coast, said an aircraft on patrol for a European anti-smuggling operation had spotted the dinghy, which was in difficulty Saturday morning. Italian navy and coast guard vessels were involved in the rescue.
Coast guard Cmdr. Sergio Liardo told Italian state TV RaiNews24 that "it appears the dinghy deflated" after a puncture. When rescuers arrived in the early afternoon, some 20 migrants were still in the dinghy while others were in the water.
All eight victims were female, Liardo said.
Asked about the Libyan navy's account that at least 25 migrants had perished, Liardo said "that's not confirmed." He said survivors told rescuers that roughly 150 migrants were aboard when the dinghy was launched from Libya's coast.
"We are looking for any eventual survivors," Liardo said, adding the search would continue through the night.
Authorities say the actual death toll in many of the migrant boats that sink in the Mediterranean is never known, and that some boats vanish without a trace. The smugglers routinely crowd much more than 100 people into motorized rubber dinghies designed to hold far fewer, aiming to maximize profits on the route from lawless Libya toward southern Europe.
Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish humanitarian group that is one of the few NGOs which still operate their own rescue ships outside Libyan waters, said some of the migrants had spent hours in the water before being saved. The aid group tweeted that possibly dozens more could be missing from the boat.
Libyan Brig. Gen. Ayoub Qassim, a spokesman for that country's navy and coast guard, said the migrants' boat capsized and sank in international waters and that the Libyan navy did not have the resources to rush to their rescue. He told The Associated Press on Saturday that the boat left Garbouli, east of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, with more than 100 people on board.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants have reached Italy in the last few years after being rescued in the central Mediterranean from traffickers' unseaworthy boats. Some 119,000 migrants arrived that way in Italy in 2017.
The International Organization of Migration also recorded more than 3,100 deaths among migrants making the Mediterranean crossing in 2017.
Since last summer, the number of migrants coming across the Mediterranean has dropped after the Libyan coast guard, trained and aided by the Italian military, started more aggressively intercepting smugglers' boats shortly after they were launched.
Human rights advocates, while opposed to trafficking, have criticized that approach, saying it means the mostly sub-Saharan migrants are then trapped in slave-like conditions in detention camps in Libya.