Relatives Lose Contact With Lebanese Migrant Ship Near Malta

BEIRUT (AP) — Activists and relatives of Lebanese and Syrian migrants aboard a fishing boat taking on water near the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea said Tuesday they lost contact with the vessel overnight.

The roughly 60 Lebanese and Syrian migrants on board had told their relatives and volunteer groups by satellite phone earlier that they have been without food, water, and baby formula for several past days.

They also reported that a third child died on board due to dehydration, according to the relatives. The vessel left from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli about 10 days ago. The passengers, headed for Italy, include Syrian refugees and Lebanese from the country’s impoverished north.

The migrants have been communicating with relatives and activist groups through a satellite phone, and have urged European coast guards to rescue them.

Alarm Phone, an international activist network that helps bring rescuers to distressed migrants at sea, told The Associated Press that Maltese authorities responded to some of their calls about the distressed boat, but had not confirmed a rescue operation. Malta has also not given permission to a commercial cargo ship to rescue the stranded migrants, the network said.

“Instead of coordinating a rescue operation, they have knowingly left these 60 people in distress at sea for days,” said Maurice Stierl of the network. “We hope that reports on fatalities will prove to be wrong, but we are extremely concerned about this group.”

One of the migrants' relatives said his brother told him during their last call on Monday night that more water was leaking into the boat and “that they are drenched.” The man spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his brother's safety.

“The adults are handling the cold and lack of supplies okay, but the children are really struggling,” he said.

The Maltese authorities did not immediately reply to requests from The Associated Press for comment on the migrant boat.

A Lebanese legislator, Ashraf Rifi, asked Italy to send a rescue team, and called on Lebanon's Foreign Ministry and diplomatic mission in Rome to do the same. The Lebanese government has not yet commented on the matter.

Once a country that received refugees, Lebanon has become a launching pad for dangerous migration by sea to Europe, as it struggles from an economic crisis over the past three years that has pulled three-quarters of its population into poverty.

As the crisis deepened, more Lebanese, as well as Syrian and Palestinian refugees, have set off to sea, with security agencies reporting foiled migration attempts almost weekly.

A Greek official told the AP that a sick 4-year-old girl died Tuesday in a hospital on the island of Crete, where she had been airlifted with her mother from a cargo ship carrying a group of migrants rescued off a crippled vessel in the Mediterranean.

The official told The Associated Press that a Greek coast guard helicopter picked up the two after a request from Maltese authorities, within whose waters the migrants had been taken onto the Antigua Barbuda-flagged BBC Pearl freighter. The vessel, sailing south of Crete, was heading from the Dutch port of Rotterdam to Port Said in Egypt. A Hellenic Coast Guard statement published later added that the cargo ship's captain contacted Maltese authorities.

The Greek official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief the press on the record.

Activists from from the Consolidated Rescue Group, a Sweden-based NGO, who have been in touch with the migrants until Monday night told the AP that the migrants were from the same boat and had also contacted Greek authorities to airlift the mother and daughter. However, The Associated Press could not immediately verify that the migrants were from the same boat the NGOs referred to.

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