VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — Syrian survivors of the latest shipwreck involving migrants in the Mediterranean Sea claim Libya's coast guard fired on their boat after reaching it a couple of hours out of port, the U.N. refugee agency said Monday.
The survivors of last Friday's shipwreck have told UNHCR that the Libyans opened fire after ordering the boat to stop, damaging the hull and wounding four people, the U.N. agency's spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said from Geneva.
"The boat took on water, and people started coming up from below, which could have contributed to the capsizing, according to witness testimony," Fleming said. She added that the four wounded were treated by doctors among the refugees on board.
UNHCR has asked Libya for an explanation based on the survivor accounts and the fact that people with bullet wounds have been among the more than 200 people rescued and taken to Malta and Italy.
The bodies of 34 people have been recovered, but survivors have told the U.N. that 400 to 500 people were on board, meaning more than 200 could still be missing.
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan denied the allegations in a press conference Sunday during a visit by Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to discuss the wave of refugees arriving by boat from Libya in Malta and Italy. He pledged an investigation.
UNHCR has expressed concern that Syrians escaping civil war are facing a perilous sea journey to reach safety in Europe.
Two million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, according to the U.N. refugee agency, and many are continuing the journey through northern Africa to ports where smugglers offer passage to Europe. Hundreds more Syrians have arrived by boat in Italy over the weekend, following a string of recent tragedies.
"Their journey is as life-threatening as the war they escaped," Fleming said.
The latest ship sank in open seas, 65 miles south of Lampedusa in Malta's search-and-rescue area.
Malta's armed forces said there were no plans for divers to be dispatched due to the depth of more than 80 meters (260 feet) — unlike another shipwreck eight days earlier in view of Lampedusa where divers have recovered 365 bodies, mostly of Eritreans who fled repression.
Only 155 people survived that tragedy.
Barry contributed from Milan.