Irish Navy boat saves 367 migrants after boat capsizes but hundreds missing
More than 150 migrants drowned as Irish naval personnel tried desperately to save them in the latest human catastrophe in the Mediterranean.
The LE Niamh went to the assistance of an overcrowded fishing boat with more than 600 people on board yesterday when tragedy struck.
Two rescue boats were launched from the Irish ship and went to either side of the vessel when it suddenly capsized and sank within two minutes.
It is believed too many people may have moved to one side of the fishing boat, causing it to overturn.
Commander Brian Fitzgerald, from the Defence Forces, said the situation was desperate.
"It was estimated that there were up to 700 people on this craft that was clearly not designed to carry anything like that number," he said.
"And then our worst fear was realised when the vessel capsized before our very eyes."
Other vessels, including a vessel operated by medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), rescued a further 32 people from the water.
Between 150 and 200 people were estimated to have drowned, if not more.
"It was a horrific sight," said Juan Matias, MSF project coordinator.
"People were desperately clinging to lifebelts, boats and anything they could, fighting for their lives, amidst people drowning, and those who had already died."
MSF said it initially received a call from Rome's Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre about a wooden boat in distress at around 9am but was diverted to carry out a rescue of another vessel. Once this rescue was complete, MSF were asked to continue on to assist the original vessel.
"As the Dignity I approached, an Irish Navy vessel that had arrived first at the scene was already conducting rescue operations as the wooden boat had already capsized," the representative said.
A Defence Forces spokesperson said the LE Niamh arrived at the scene shortly before noon about 100 kilometres north of the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
He confirmed 367 rescued people were brought aboard the LE Niamh, including 342 men, 12 women, and 13 children. Some 25 bodies have also been recovered.
The LE Niamh was on its way to the Italian port of Palermo last night with the survivors and the bodies of the victims.
Defence Minister Simon Coveney said the LE Niamh, along with Italian Naval vessels, the Medicins Sans Frontiere vessel Dignity, and a number of helicopters took part in the rescue operation.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have lost their lives, the survivors and the rescuers for whom this is an extremely difficult operation," the minister said.