Baby dies on Mediterranean migrant boat metres from Tunisia shore

A 20-year-old man also died in the tragedy

Tunisian coastguard rescued 13 people from the water. AFP
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At least two Tunisians, one of them a baby, died when their boat sank on Saturday soon after leaving the country's shores trying to reach Europe, the country’s coastguard said.

Thirteen people were rescued after the vessel sank at 2am (1am GMT) when it was only 120 metres off the coast of Gabes.

Tunisia is a major point for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach a new life in Europe, but it is also a dangerous, often lethal, voyage.

"Two bodies have been recovered, one of a 20-year-old man and the other of an infant," the coastguard said on Saturday.

Five passengers were missing, the coastguard said, adding that a search was ongoing and 13 people, including the baby's parents, had been rescued.

Authorities in Gabes have launched an investigation to "determine the circumstances of this tragedy", it added.

Witnesses said the boat had just left Gabes when those on board saw a trawler they mistook for a coastguard vessel.

They tried to turn around, fishermen told journalists, but the boat capsized and the baby became stuck in nets on deck, the witnesses told the AFP news agency.

More than 1,800 people have died this year in shipwrecks on the central Mediterranean migration route, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

On Monday judicial officials reported the deaths of 11 migrants in a shipwreck off Sfax, with dozens more missing.

Sfax, in eastern Tunisia, is about 130 kilometres from the Italian island of Lampedusa and has emerged as a key migrant launchpad.

The Tunisian coastguard says it intercepted 34,290 migrants in the six months to June 20, most from sub-Saharan African countries, compared with 9,217 over the same period in 2022.

The number of Africans trying to make the crossing has spiked since Tunisian President Kais Saied alleged in a February 21 speech that "hordes" of irregular migrants were causing crime and posing a demographic threat to the mainly Arab country.

Tunisians have opted for the sea journeys in growing numbers as the country faces an economic crisis and shortages of basic staples.

Italy says about 95,000 migrants have arrived on its shores since the start of the year -- more than double the number for the same period in 2022.

Tunisians are the fourth-largest group among them, behind migrants from the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Egypt.

In July, the European Union signed an agreement with Tunisia that provides for €105 million ($115 million) in direct European aid to prevent the departure of migrant boats and combat smugglers.

Updated: August 13, 2023, 4:47 AM