BERLIN (AP) — At least four people died off the coast of Libya and more were missing after a rubber boat carrying around 150 migrants was attacked Friday by a group aboard a speedboat labeled as belonging to Libya's coast guard, a German aid group said.
Dozens of people were tipped into the water in the panic that followed the attack, and there were fears that the death toll could rise into double digits, according to the Sea-Watch group.
Sea-Watch said it had crew members responding to the boat 14 kilometers (9 miles) from Libya's coast when the attacked happened. As its crew was handing out life-vests, the speedboat approached and its occupants started hitting migrants with sticks, spokesman Ruben Neugebauer said.
In the ensuing panic, part of the rubber boat collapsed and most of the estimated 150 people onboard ended up in the water, Neugebauer said.
Sea-Watch said the assailants prevented its crew from handing out more life-vests and medical aid, but crew members were able to get 120 people onto one of their boats.
Four bodies were recovered, but Neugebauer said there were other corpses that couldn't be retrieved and the death toll could rise into double digits.
He said the speedboat bearing the insignia of the Libyan Coast Guard "had several people on board" and had been seen in the area repeatedly.
In Libya, a spokesman for the Navy and Coast Guard said investigators were looking into the report. Brig-Gen. Ayoub Gasem told The Associated Press that Coast Guard officials assured him they were not involved in the reported attack.
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 3,600 people have died or gone missing while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe this year. The risky crossing from North Africa, and Libya in particular, has been the main route smugglers and migrants have used in recent months.