TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's coast guard said on Sunday it had recovered the bodies of 26 people who drowned when boats carrying them illegally to Europe got into difficulty, taking to 176 the total number retrieved from the sea so far.
A small flotilla of fishing boats overloaded with refugees was stranded for days off Tunisia's coast, and when help arrived, some boats capsized as people stampeded to get off, sending some into the water, aid officials said.
Tunisian officials say the death toll could eventually reach about 250.
The head of coast guards for Tunisia's eastern Sfax region said the bodies which had been retrieved from the Mediterranean were being taken to a hospital mortuary in the port of Sfax, the TAP state-run news agency reported.
It also said the search operation, which had been disrupted by bad weather, would carry on.
Tunisia's authorities said last week they had rescued 570 people from the boats, which were trying to reach Italy. Three of those rescued died later in hospital.
Tunisian officials and workers with the United Nations Refugee agency say most of the victims were from sub-Saharan Africa and were fleeing the turmoil in Libya, where rebels are fighting government forces.
Thousands of people each year cross the Mediterranean from North Africa, often on unseaworthy boats, trying to reach Europe.
There has been a surge in illegal crossings -- many heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa -- since a revolution in Tunisia and the outbreak of the conflict in Libya.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Hamid Ould Ahmed and Christian Lowe; Editing by Jon Hemming)