Many women and children are among 150 people that drowned after a ship carrying some 850 migrants fleeing the conflict in Libya capsized off Tunisia's coast, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday.
The tragedy appears to be one of the worst and the deadliest incidents in the Mediterranean so far this year, said Adrian Edwards, the spokesman for the UNHCR.
The Geneva-based agency said at least 578 of the estimated 850 people on board, mostly from West Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh, survived the Wednesday sinking.
The boat, manned by people with little or no maritime experience, set sail on Saturday afternoon from the Libyan capital Tripoli and was headed for Lampedusa in Italy, Edwards said.
"It ran into difficulties soon after departure and experienced problems with its steering and power," he said. "Effectively lost at sea, by the third day of the journey the passengers ran out of food and water."
The boat ultimately ran aground on Wednesday on a sandbank near the Kerkennah islands, some 300 kilometers northwest of Tripoli. It capsized as desperate passengers rushed to one side, seeking rescue by the Tunisian coast guard and fishing boats that had approached the vessel.
Many fell into the water and women and children are among the missing, survivors told the refugee agency.
UNHCR, however, revised its earlier statement which said that 150 bodies had been recovered from the sea.
Col. Jalloul Jaballah, who heads the emergency response unit in the region near the shipwreck, says that only one body has been pulled out of the water and another person died while being transferred, as bad weather has prevented any recovery attempt.
Edwards said Friday that survivors are being taken to refugee camps where they will receive counseling and assistance.