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Death toll from Tunisia migrant ship disaster rises to 65

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More migrants will die in the Mediterranean if search and rescue operations are not strengthened, the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) has warned.

The claim comes after 65 people drowned off the coast of Tunisia on Friday.

It happened when their boat — which had left the coastal city of Zuwara in Libya on Thursday evening — capsized.

A fishing boat saved 16 migrants from the vessel, according to a spokesman from Tunisia's defence ministry.

“This is a tragic and terrible reminder of the risks still faced by those who attempt to cross the Mediterranean,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR special envoy for the Mediterranean.

“Across the region, we need to strengthen the capacity of search and rescue operations. If we don’t act now, we’re almost certain to see more tragic events in the coming weeks and months.”

Aquarius, one of the last refugee rescue ships working in the Mediterranean, stopped operating in December last year blaming harassment from Italy and other countries.

Rome has closed its ports to migrant-carrying vessels since a new governing coalition came to power after elections in March 2018.

Italy's government has repeatedly accused rescuers of being complicit with people smugglers who charge large sums to help migrants get to Europe. Others have criticised rescue operations for encouraging migrants to make the trip in the first place.

Tripoli, a hub for migrants and refugees hoping to sail to Europe after a perilous trek through the Sahara, has long been a dangerous dead end: Many end up in detention centres or being tortured by their captors while money is extorted from their families, according to UNHCR.

But it has become even more dangerous since forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar began an offensive a month ago on the capital, triggering renewed warfare between rival Libyan factions.

Friday's incident off the coast of Tunisia was the deadliest since 117 migrants lost their lives or went missing in mid-January.

UNHCR says that while fewer migrants are making the journey across the Mediterranean than last year, it's proving deadlier, proportionally, for those that do make the trip.