TUNIS (Reuters) - The bodies of 150 African refugees fleeing turmoil in Libya have been recovered off the Tunisian coast after the vessels carrying them illegally to Europe got into difficulty, a U.N. official said Friday.
"Up to now 150 bodies of refugees have been found off the shores of Kerkennah," Carole Laleve, an official with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, told Reuters, referring to a Tunisian island.
"Search operations are continuing."
The boats encountered problems Tuesday about 20 km (12 miles) off Kerkennah as they headed for Italy, Tunisia's state news agency TAP has reported.
Tunisian coastguards and military rescued 570 people, but many others went into the water when a stampede to get off the small fishing boats -- combined with the effect of rough seas -- capsized some of the vessels, a Tunisian official said.
In all about 250 people were reported Thursday as missing from the vessels.
In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said his colleagues in Tunisia had spoken to some of the survivors who had said the boat they were on had been manned by "an ad hoc recruited crew with little or no maritime experience."
Maeve O'Donnell, Tunisia operations assistant for the International Organization for Migration, said a survivor had told her "taking that boat was the worst mistake of his life."
"They were traveling for three to four days when the boat hit something under water. They were stuck for several days and were reduced to drinking seawater, and water from the boat's engine," she reported the refugee as saying.
Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said about 15,964 migrants had arrived in Italy and Malta since the beginning of the Libyan crisis.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in Geneva)
(Reporting by Tarek Amara; editing by Myra MacDonald and Jonathan Lynn)