Survivors recount mayhem of Mediterranean migrant shipwreck

Athens (AFP) - For three days, they were abandoned by their traffickers at sea, without food or water, after what may have been one of the worst tragedies of Europe's migrant crisis, survivors said Thursday.

Muaz Mahmoud from Ethiopia is among 41 survivors of the latest sinking, which they say occurred after human traffickers tried to transfer migrants from one boat to another already-overcrowded vessel somewhere between Libya and Italy.

Citing testimonies from survivors, the UN refugee agency said Wednesday it feared around 500 migrants may have died in the shipwreck.

Speaking in broken English, Mahmoud told reporters at the Greek charity Praxis that he lost his 21-year-old wife and his two-month-old baby in the water.

"We start travelling at night from Tobruk in Libya with a 15-metre (50-foot) boat, 200 people were with me and after 15 hours travelling, they ask us to go to a big boat, they force us to go the big boat, a wood boat where they were 300 people," he said, visibly shaken.

"When we moved to that boat, the big boat fell in the water and my baby two months and my wife 21-years-old, and all died in the middle of the ocean. Only 41 made it, we swam to save our lives, to the small boat. And I saved two persons."

The traffickers operating the smaller boat, whose motor was no longer working, abandoned them at sea.

"We were three days in the ocean," the 25-year-old said.

"We have nothing to eat on that boat. We have nothing to drink on that boat. We are almost dead. We are sick all, inside of us. We cry, we cry for a boat to help us."

Then, a glimmer of hope: the survivors found a mobile phone on board with only one number saved in the memory.

"Then I call and it was the (Italian) police," Mahmoud said.

- 'Tragic' -

Shortly afterwards, a Philippine-flagged cargo vessel that was sailing nearby rescued them on April 16 and took them to safety to Kalamata on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece.

Mowlid Ismad, a 28-year-old from Somalia, had been travelling on the boat that sank. Speaking in Arabic, he said his two sisters and his baby drowned in the shipwreck.

In a brief statement to reporters, Giovanni Lepri of the UN refugee agency described the reported incident as "tragic".

UNHCR says that 41 survivors came from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt. Among them were 37 men, three women and a three-year-old baby.

UNHCR said it had interviewed some of the survivors in Kalamata whose testimonies matched those heard by AFP and other reporters.

"If confirmed, as many as 500 people may have lost their lives when the large boat went down in the Mediterranean Sea at an unknown location between Libya and Italy," the agency said in a statement on Wednesday.

The specific date of the incident was not clear, the UN added.

The latest reported deaths came as Europe struggles to find a way of stemming the flow of people fleeing war, poverty and persecution in what has become the continent's worst migrant crisis since World War II.