17 Haiti migrants die as boat capsizes

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

MIAMI -- At least 17 migrants from Haiti died Wednesday when their overloaded sailboat capsized as it was being towed to shore in the Turks and Caicos Islands, officials in the British territory said.

A marine unit of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force had intercepted the packed sloop about two hours earlier and was escorting it to shore when it abruptly overturned, sparking a frantic search and rescue operation in the pre-dawn darkness.

Karlo Pelissier, the Haitian consul to the Turks and Caicos, said he was told by survivors that several migrants attempted to jump off the 28-foot boat and flee to land as they neared the island of Providenciales and that the surge caused the overloaded sloop to overturn. Officials, however, did not confirm the report as the cause of the capsizing.

Authorities rescued 33 migrants, including one 12-year-old boy, and recovered the bodies of 17 people. Divers and U.S. Coast Guard helicopters assisted in a search for additional survivors or victims in the area where the incident occurred, about 150 yards (meters) from shore. Earlier, officials had said there were 18 confirmed deaths but the toll was revised downward.

A scaled-down search was planned for Thursday but further casualties were not expected, said Neil Smith, a government spokesman. The remains of the 12 men and five women killed would be repatriated after autopsies to establish the cause of death.

Survivors were being detained at a migrant detention center in Providenciales, the most populated island in the chain southeast of the Bahamas. There were no major injuries.

Pelissier said that the migrants, mostly from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and the northern city of Cap-Haitien, had set off on their voyage Sunday night. Those rescued are expected to be repatriated to Haiti in the coming days.

Authorities had not yet identified the captain of the vessel or any of the human smugglers from among the survivors, said police spokesman Audley Astwood.

"Right now, the focus of our operation is search and rescue, trying to save as many lives as possible," he added.

The capsizing of migrant vessels has become common throughout the region. In November, an overloaded migrant sloop overturned in the southern Bahamas and an estimated 30 people drowned.

In July 2009, a sailboat with estimated 200 Haitians aboard ran aground on a reef off Turks and Caicos, killing at least 15 people. In May 2007, at least 61 migrants died when their boat capsized, also just off shore from Providenciales. (AP)

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