CAIRO >> The bodies of 74 migrants were recovered from a beach near the town of Zawiya in western Libya, rescuers said Tuesday, an ominous sign before the high season for Mediterranean crossings.
The bodies were believed to have come from a shipwrecked inflatable raft that was found on the same stretch of shore, said Mohammed Almosrti, a spokesman for the Libyan Red Crescent. Some of the bodies were found inside the stricken raft.
The rubber boat left Libya for Italy on Saturday and appears to have been left drifting without an engine for several days, said Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Rome.
“It’s really strange that smugglers would take off the engine,” he said. “They are becoming increasingly cruel.”
Red Crescent workers spent seven hours collecting the bodies Monday afternoon, and the organization posted photographs of dozens of black-and-white body bags lined up on a beach. Three of the dead were said to be women. Given the capacity of the boat, which could hold up to 120 people, the death toll is expected to rise, Almosrti said.
The tragedy was a stark reminder about what may lie ahead during the main migration season in Libya, the principal springboard for most African migrants seeking to get to Europe.
Although the illegal trade usually slows for the winter, at least 228 people died in January while trying to reach Italy, mostly in smaller boats and inflatable vessels, according to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.
The bodies that washed up near Zawiya, a smuggling hub 30 miles west of Tripoli, the capital, appeared to be a further sign that greater numbers were starting to set off.
“Usually they wait until April or May, and it continues until October,” Almosrti said. “If they are starting strong like this, it means we could see a lot of deaths this year.”
The route between Libya and Italy was the site of a record number of deaths in 2016, when at least 4,579 people died, Fabrice Leggeri, head of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, said last week. The toll for 2015 was about 3,000.
Libya was the departure point for many of the estimated 180,000 migrants who reached Italy last year. The migrants, most of whom are fleeing war or poverty in Africa, often arrive in Libya after arduous journeys through the desert.
They entrust their lives to smuggling gangs that have set up along a 230-mile stretch of coast in western Libya, which is largely controlled by an array of rival militant groups.
Italy recently trained 89 members of the Libyan coast guard, hoping they would take distressed boats back to Libya instead of allowing them to continue to Italy. The initiative is part of a broader European effort to stem the flow of migrants that includes financing for and training to set up migrant holding centers in Libya.
But the plan depends largely on assistance from the United Nations-backed unity government, one of several governments in Libya. The unity government enjoys limited control in Tripoli and in a few towns along the coast.
News of the Italian training scheme, however, may be accelerating the migrant crossings. Di Giacomo, of the International Organization for Migration, said some smugglers were urging migrants to leave now before the Libyan coast guard could thwart their departure.
“The smugglers are using this information to convince the migrants that this is the moment to go,” Di Giacomo said. “For them, it’s a way of doing more business.”