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30 dead and 60 missing in Caribbean shipwrecks

MIAMI — At least 30 people, many of them from the Dominican Republic, died and more than 60 were missing after two boats thought to be carrying illegal migrants sank in separate incidents in the Caribbean, officials from countries in the region said Friday.

The double tragedy — the wrecks occurred off Haiti and the small island of St. Martin — highlighted the grim toll from a constant trickle of migrants in the Caribbean who try to seek a better life by setting out for more prosperous countries in often overcrowded and small vessels.

Officials in the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, said that more than 15 people from neighboring Dominican Republic died and more than 40 were missing and feared dead after their boat sank off a small island near the southwest of Haiti.

"There were more than 15 bodies found," said Yolaine Surena, director of Haiti's Civil Protection office. "The boat sank while they were on their way to Puerto Rico."

Two people survived, and one of them, 19-year-old Carlos Pinales, told officials that the vessel Les Canotes, with about 60 people on board, was lost at sea for 24 days after its engine had broken down.

It drifted and eventually sank off the island of Ile-a-Vache, three miles south of Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Such a course would mean the vessel ended up in exactly the opposite direction — west and not east of their country — from the one the passengers wanted to go.

"We don't expect to find any more survivors," said Surena but added that a search by Haitian rescue crews would halt at nightfall Friday and resume today.

Farther east in the Caribbean, rescue crews searched for as many as 20 passengers, possibly illegal migrants, missing in another shipwreck that killed at least 15 people, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Fishermen rescued two men, thought to be from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, after the 40-foot motorized vessel Esperanza sank Thursday off St. Martin. The survivors said as many as 40 people had been aboard.

A Dutch Coast Guard vessel also rescued two Puerto Ricans who were members of the crew and handed them over to French authorities. The pair were now in French police custody, said a government official in the French Caribbean island of Martinique, which was coordinating the search.

At least 15 bodies were recovered, some from the submerged vessel and others after they washed ashore, according to U.S. Coast Guard officials in Miami. The U.S. Coast Guard had earlier said that at least 20 bodies were recovered.

Authorities in Santo Domingo said most of the passengers were from the Dominican Republic, but that Chinese and Haitian passengers were also aboard.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Robert Suddarth said the survivors were being questioned by French authorities, who were investigating the possibility of immigrant smuggling.

The wooden boat sank in the northeastern Caribbean about 2 miles west of St. Martin, the French half of the island shared with Dutch Sint Maarten. The vessel was flagged in the Netherlands Antilles and powered by two outboard motors, Suddarth said.

Investigators said it apparently sailed from Sint Maarten and may have been headed to one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. It sank amid 1 to 3-foot seas with 17 mph winds.

Two of the survivors were wearing life jackets but none of the dead were, the Coast Guard said.

The French Navy led the search for survivors, aided initially by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and the Netherlands Antilles Coast Guard. The U.S. vessels were relieved of search duties Friday afternoon, but the U.S. Coast Guard was still helping calculate drift patterns to determine where the currents might have carried any more survivors, Coast Guard Petty Officer Danielle DeMarino said.

Stephane Grauvogel, a local government official in Martinique, said several French navy vessels and helicopters were still searching the area for survivors.

The boat that sank off Haiti could turn out to be a boat that was reported missing on March 7 by authorities in the Dominican Republic.

Officials said at the time that nearly nearly 70 migrants from the Dominican Republic were presumed to have drowned when their boat disappeared during an attempt to reach Puerto Rico.

It was not immediately possible to confirm that the boatwreck reported by the Haitian authorities on Friday was the same one.

The two shipwrecks were the latest incidents involving a steady trickle of migrants from the Dominican Republic and other poorer nations in the region who set off to seek a better life in nearby U.S. territories.

Puerto Rico, just across the Mona Passage from the Dominican Republic, is a nearby destination for Dominicans who can easily blend into the Spanish-speaking territory.

But hundreds of illegal migrants from Cuba, and from Haiti, also set out every year toward the mainland United States, or pay human smugglers to bring them over.