700 immigrants trapped on fishing boat off Tunisia

June 1, 2011 - 9:58 AM

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's coast guard launched Wednesday operations to rescue some 700 would-be immigrants trapped on a fishing boat that stalled off the country's coast, the official TAP news agency said.

The boat is believed to have set sail from Libya and was en route to Italy, the report said. Its passengers, which include women and children, are mostly of sub-Saharan African origin.

Passengers alerted Tunisian coastal authorities after the boat stalled some 20 miles off the Kerkennah islands in southern Tunisia on Tuesday, TAP said. Because of difficult weather, the rescue operations couldn't begin until Wednesday morning.

Passengers were being evacuated aboard inflatable rafts and are to be transferred to the Choucha refugee camp near the Tunisia-Libya border. The camp is providing shelter to sub-Saharan Africans and others who have fled months-long conflict between Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi and rebels.

Meanwhile, Italian officials seized a yacht said to have belonged to the family of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was deposed in a popular uprising in January.

The 14-meter (45-foot) vessel, the Atlantique 43, was anchored in the port of Italy's southern island of Lampedusa when it was seized by financial police on Wednesday, the LaPresse news agency said. The boat is worth an estimated euro1 million ($1.4 million), the report said.

Tunisian authorities had asked Italy to seize any property owned by Ben Ali and his family on the ground that it belongs to the Tunisian people.

Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia after weeks of popular protests that began in a small Tunisian city and later spread throughout the Arab world.