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15 Liberian Migrants Die as Boat Capsies Off Sicily - 2002-09-15

Fifteen illegal immigrants from Liberia died when their boat capsized off the southern coast of Sicily. But the death toll could rise, as rescue operations continue and authorities attempt to ascertain just how many people were aboard the vessel.

The bodies recovered so far include four women and a 15-year-old girl. Rescuers also brought 92 people to safety, using boats and helicopters. Of those, 80 were taken to a holding center for illegal immigrants in Agrigento, and the remainder to a hospital.

The old, wooden vessel sank in shallow waters about 200 meters from Cape Rosello, on the southern Sicilian coastline early Sunday morning. The causes of the accident are still unclear.

According to reports, some of the passengers clung to the wreckage after the accident, but others tried swimming ashore and drowned.

Survivors said 150 people were on board the vessel, but authorities are still unclear as to the exact number.

All but one of those on board were reported to be Liberian. Authorities believe an Egyptian man organized the ill-fated journey. Police are to question him in an effort to shed light on the disaster.

Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu has sent a task force of experts to Agrigento to assist in the emergency.

Thousands of illegal immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe attempt to reach southern Italian shores every year. Many travel on makeshift boats, risking their lives after having paid large sums of money to smugglers for the journey.

The Italian government recently took new tough measures in an effort to put a stop to the tide of illegal immigrants. Despite increased patrols along Italy's very long coastline, smugglers know they must make the most of the summer months to organize and carry out their illegal journeys.