Tunisia migrant boat disaster: Survivor watched passengers slip under water 'one after one'

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By Daniel Bellamy  with AFP
Ahmed Bilal
Ahmed Bilal   -  Copyright  AFP

A survivor of a migrant boat disaster in the Mediterranean has told how he watched fellow passengers slip away and sink to their deaths.

Ahmed Bilal, from Bangladesh, was one of more than a dozen to be rescued from a vessel off the coast of Tunisia on Friday. 

UNHCR said that 65 people drowned when the boat capsized.

"One after one they let go, they departed under the water, one after one," said the 30-year-old farmer, who lost his cousin and another relative.  

Survivors told the Red Crescent the tragedy unfolded after some 75 people — who had left Zuwara in Libya on a large boat late Thursday — were transferred to a smaller one.

"They were transferred into a smaller inflatable boat which was overloaded, and 10 minutes later it sank," Mongi Slim, a Red Crescent official in the southern Tunisian town of Zarzis, told AFP. "The migrants indicated they spent eight hours in the cold water and to have been saved... by Tunisian fisherman."

One survivor, who wished to remain anonymous, told a local TV station that they had paid €1,000 for a place on the boat.

"There were nine Moroccans, eight died and I'm the only survivor. We were really exhausted, we were at sea from midnight till 8 o'clock morning," he said.

Tunisian fishermen rescued him and 15 others and brought them to shore in Zarzis.

The bodies of three people were plucked out of the waters on Friday, the Tunisian defence ministry said.

Survivors said the boat was heading to Italy and had on board only men, 51 from Bangladesh, as well as three Egyptians, several Moroccans, Chadians and other Africans.

Libya has been enduring another round of fighting in its civil war. Gunbattles between rival factions in the capital Tripoli have gone on for five weeks.