9 dead, 70 missing in Haitian boat capsize

PROVIDENCIALES: Authorities were searching for at least 70 Haitian migrants off the Turks and Caicos Islands Tuesday, after their overloaded boat capsized, killing at least nine, but were not hopeful survivors would be found.

Local police renewed their search at dawn for the dozens of illegal migrants still unaccounted for in shark-infested waters after their rickety boat struck a reef.

Marine officers, assisted by the US Coast Guard, have so far rescued 118 passengers -- 15 of them on the nearby island of West Caicos -- after they managed to swim ashore.

"We were back out today at first light, combing the area trying to find any more survivors, but we are not hopeful," said Neil Hall, head of the islands' marine police.

"It will probably be just a case of picking up more dead bodies. The survivors are in pretty bad shape; worn out, dehydrated and confused."

Local police said ten bodies had been recovered and 70 people were unaccounted for, while the US Coast Guard put the death toll at nine and said 79 migrants were still missing.

As many as 200 people are believed to have been on board the wooden sailboat, which was likely headed for the Bahamas or the southeastern coast of the United States.

Based on statements from survivors, the overloaded vessel left Haiti with about 160 people aboard and then stopped along the way, picking up additional people.

The boat capsized and sank about 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers) southeast of West Caicos.

"I had been fearing for a long time that one of these boats was going to go off course, and now it's happened," Hall said.

"The problem with these sloops is we have no idea how many were on board, so we don't know how many we are looking for or how many we can expect to find."

Police were only alerted to the disaster after five migrants were picked up by security staff on the private island. They used small boats to rescue the stranded migrants, with the US Coast Guard assisting in the search and airlifting the injured to a hospital on shore.

"These boats are sail freighters. They don't have an engine, they have a makeshift sail, so wherever the boat takes them, they go," Petty Officer First Class Jennifer Johnson, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in Miami, told AFP.

She said the coast guard's "primary concern" was locating the missing, getting them to safety and making sure they receive any needed medical care.

US officials said an HH-65 helicopter from Air Station Miami and a C-130 military transport were at the accident scene and searching for survivors and that the coast guard cutter Valiant was also participating in the search.

Migrants from Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, often undertake perilous journeys aboard precarious and often overcrowded boats headed for the Caribbean or the United States.

In May 2007, more than 60 migrants were killed when their vessel capsized off the Turks and Caicos Islands in the worst disaster to affect the islands in recent history.

A British-dependent island chain, the Turks and Caicos Islands are located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Haiti.