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Survivors: Smugglers Ram Boat, Drown Hundreds of Migrants

A man inspects the bodies of three African migrants that were recovered by the Libyan coastguard after their boat sunk off the coastal town of Garaboly, east of Tripoli, Sept. 15, 2014.

The International Organization for Migration reports it is investigating what appears to be the deliberate drowning of 500 migrants by smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea. The tragedy reportedly occurred September 6th after the boat, crammed with passengers, left the port of Damietta in Egypt.

The doomed vessel reportedly left with some 500 men, women and children, including Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Sudanese.

A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Joel Millman, said only 10 of the migrants were rescued and three bodies recovered from the shipwreck. He said IOM staff and Italian police interviewed two survivors in Sicily over the weekend.

“They are both Palestinian men from Gaza and they were rescued separately after they were clinging to flotation devices in the water for at least 24 hours, possibly more," he said. "They told investigators that their overcrowded vessel was damaged or rammed by smugglers after migrants on the boat refused to switch to what they thought was a less seaworthy vessel.”

The IOM reports the growing death toll off Europe’s shores is approaching 3,000 this year, four times higher than the estimated 700 migrants who drowned at sea last year.

If the survivors’ reports are confirmed, the IOM said this would be the worst shipwreck of migrants in years.

IOM officials also say all indications suggest this was not an accident, but the deliberate drowning of migrants by criminal gangs who extort money from people desperate to escape war and poverty in their countries.

According to Millman, IOM has also received reports of migrants in Libya being held in secret locations in terrible conditions, along with reports of beatings and stabbings. He also said migrants have reported being forced onto unseaworthy vessels at knifepoint.

“It strikes us as a kind of a frenzy that is possibly driven by the lawlessness of the Libyan coastal cities where people are forcing migrants to have money wired [into] accounts ... to pay for their voyages," he said. "Once they have paid, the traffickers do not appear to have any compunction about putting them onto boats. And when the migrants resist, they are forced with violence to board the boats. To us it does not seem like a smuggling operation that is involved with two parties negotiating a price. It feels more like a kidnapping.”

Millman said authorities also are investigating a report that 200 more people are missing, presumed drowned, in another boat incident off Libya. If these reports are verified, he says the death toll for the past week would be more than 700 people lost at sea.