Up to 117 migrants are missing in the Mediterranean two days after leaving Libya in a rubber dinghy, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said on Saturday, after three people were rescued from the vessel after it sank, Reuters reported.
"The three survivors told us they were 120 when they left Garabulli, in Libya, on Thursday night. After 10 to 11 hours at sea ... (the boat) started sinking and people started drowning," IOM spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said on Saturday, revealing that people came mainly from west Africa. "Ten women including a pregnant girl were aboard and two children, one of whom was only two months old," he added.
The sinking dinghy in rough waters was first spotted by an Italian military plane on Friday, which threw two safety rafts into the water before leaving due to a lack of fuel, Rear Admiral Fabio Agostini told TV channel RaiNews24.
A helicopter dispatched from a naval ship had then rescued the three people, who were suffering from severe hypothermia, taken to hospital on the island of Lampedusa.
"During this operation at least three bodies were seen in the water who appeared to be dead," Agostini said.
Libyan authorities coordinated rescue operations after an alert sent by the Italian navy, ordering a merchant ship to go to the site of the sinking, though rescue efforts had ceased after the search for the dinghy had proved aimless.
About 2,297 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean last year, out of a total of 116,959 people who reached Europe by sea, according to the IOM.
Arrivals in the first 16 days of 2019 totaled 4,449, almost all by sea, up from 2,964 in the same period of 2018.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said in a Facebook post late on Friday: "As long as European ports will remain open ... sea-traffickers will continue to do business and kill people."
Salvini, leader of the anti-migrant League, has closed Italian ports to humanitarian vessels since he came to power in June.