By Neil Hartnell
NASSAU (Reuters) - Up to 16 illegal Haitian migrants aboard a boat carrying more than 200 passengers that ran aground at the height of Tropical Storm Isaac are missing and may have died, the Bahamian government said on Monday.
Fred Mitchell, the Bahamas' foreign minister, said that no bodies had been recovered, but a man identifying himself as the sail boat's captain had said four Haitians jumped overboard during the voyage and another 12 had drowned.
The captain told Bahamian officials that the boat, which ran aground off Mangrove Cay on the island of Andros, left Cap Haitien a week ago.
Mitchell said that 197 survivors from the voyage were in custody. He said the search and rescue mission had ended, adding that the survivors were in good health and been given food and water.
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas and there is a long and tragic history of people drowning while trying to escape its crushing poverty in rickety boats headed for the United States.
"The Bahamas Government must send a strong and clear message that it is intolerant of human trafficking and illegal migration, and that the boat's captain must be held to account," Mitchell said. "Someone has to be prosecuted and spend time in jail for this offense."
The Bahamian government plans to start repatriating the migrants on Wednesday. Mitchell added that talks on illegal migration and human trafficking with Haiti's prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, were scheduled for September.
He is also set to hold talks with the Dominican Republic over alleged illegal poaching by that nation's fishermen in Bahamian waters.
(Editing by David Adams and Christopher Wilson)