Rocco Nuri, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tunisia, told the Guardian that the survivor, whom he named as Abbas, was spotted by Tunisian fishermen on Monday night clinging to a fuel tank and the remains of the boat. The 25-year-old Eritrean was taken to hospital in the town of Zarzis.
After interviewing him, Nuri quoted the man as saying that he had set off from Tripoli in Libya with 55 others – 33 Eritreans, 20 Somalis and two Sudanese. At some point in the journey – "He is very confused about timing," said Nuri – the rigid inflatable boat on which they were travelling developed a puncture on one side. Many of the passengers fled to the opposite side of the vessel and the wooden base of the boat gave way under their weight.
"The boat capsized and everyone fell overboard," said Nuri. "Abbas grasped a rope that ran down the side of the boat. Everybody else presumably was lost in the sea and drowned."
The UNHCR official added, however, that the survivor had told him that some of the other passengers had tried to hold on to him to save themselves. "He was stripped naked as people grabbed at his clothes. But he managed to hold on to the rope," said Nuri.
Boats4People, an NGO that interviewed Abbas earlier, said in a statement that the boat capsized after "approximately 26 hours" at sea. The survivor had "drifted alone for 14 days in the open sea, occasionally sighting in the distance other vessels".
Commenting on the reported disaster, the deputy high commissioner for refugees, T Alexander Aleinikoff, said: "The Mediterranean is one of the busiest seaways in the world and it is imperative that the time-honoured tradition of rescue at sea be upheld."
Recent days have seen an upsurge in the number of attempted crossings – and evidence of a change in tactics by the organisers. Instead of trying to land on the island of Lampedusa, the most southerly patch of Italian territory, boats have been aiming for Sicily and the mainland.
Thirty migrants claiming to be from Pakistan were stopped by police after landing on the coast of Puglia, the "heel" of Italy, on Monday. Since Sunday, three vessels carrying a total of 174 people have been intercepted off the south-eastern shores of Sicily.
Italian revenue guards meanwhile reported having arrested 20 people in a wide-ranging operation against migrant traffickers from Niger. It was reported that wiretaps had yielded evidence of migrants being left to die after suffering injuries while crossing the Sahara.
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