TUNIS/ROME (Reuters) - At least eight people drowned on Monday when a boat carrying dozens of mostly Tunisian migrants collided with a navy vessel off the country’s southeast coast, its defence ministry said.
According to testimony from survivors, there were between 70 and 80 people on board, International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said. He said at least 20 people were missing and some 40, almost all Tunisians, had been rescued.
The ministry said eight bodies had been recovered after the collision with the Tunisian navy boat, which occurred 54km (33 miles) off the coast.
Italian news agency ANSA said the migrant vessel had sunk.
Libya has long been the busiest country of departure for a steady flow of migrants trying to reach the European Union from North Africa.
But activity on that route has declined since July as Libya’s coast guard and an armed group in the smuggling hub of Sabratha tightened controls.
Meanwhile departures from Tunisia have picked up, many in wooden boats that have started landing on secluded Sicilian beaches, often in broad daylight.[nL8N1LP3IP]
A rescue mission after Monday’s collision was being coordinated by the Maltese coast guard, an Italian coast guard spokesman said. Two Italian coast guard ships, a finance police boat and a navy ship had been sent to assist, he said.
A Maltese plane was en route to the scene, a Maltese army spokesman said.
Reporting by Tarek Amara in Tunis, Steve Scherer and Chris Scicluna in Valletta; Editing by Angus MacSwan and John Stonestreet