UPDATE - 41 migrants believed dead in shipwreck off Italy

UPDATE - 41 migrants believed dead in shipwreck off Italy

4 survivors tell rescuers they were on small boat that set off from Tunisia's Sfax, sank while on its way to Italy

UPDATES WITH NEW DEVELOPMENTS; CHANGES HEADLINE, DECK, LEAD; EDITS THROUGHOUT

By Giada Zampano

ROME (AA) – Forty-one migrants are believed to have died last week in a shipwreck in the central Mediterranean after leaving the Tunisian coast, Italian prosecutors and local media said on Wednesday, citing accounts by survivors who reached the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Italian media reported that four survivors told rescuers they were traveling on board of a 7-meter-long (23 feet) boat carrying about 45 people, including three children.

They said the boat left the Tunisian port of Sfax last Thursday, but sank within a few hours after being hit by a big wave. Only 15 people were said to be wearing life vests, rescuers reported.

Survivors added that they were rescued by a cargo ship and then transferred to an Italian coast guard vessel, which disembarked them in Lampedusa on Wednesday morning.

They are believed to have spent several days at sea without eating or drinking. After being assisted, they will be questioned by police over the shipwreck, prosecutors said.

Italy remains one of the main routes for migrants who leave North African coasts trying to reach Europe. The number of departures, which were also favored in recent months by good weather conditions, has seen a significant increase this year, with around 94,000 arrivals by sea compared with about 45,000 in the same period last year, according to official data.

Italy's far-right government led by Giorgia Meloni has adopted anti-migrant policies that force rescue ships to dock at distant ports, rather than letting them disembark in closest islands like Lampedusa and Sicily.

Last month, the EU signed a much-awaited deal with Tunisia aimed at curbing irregular migration, but legal experts and nongovernmental organizations warned it risks harming migrants’ rights and violating international rules.

The UN reported over 17,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014, making it the most dangerous migrant crossing in the world.

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