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Navy launches exercise with North African partners as migrant deaths in the Mediterranean soar

The U.S. Navy kicked off Exercise Phoenix Express 2021 at La Goulette naval base in Tunis, Tunisia — a move that coincided with the drowning deaths or disappearances of more than 50 migrants off Tunisia’s coast Monday.

The North African maritime exercise is designed to foster regional cooperation, maritime domain awareness, information-sharing practices, and operational capabilities. Likewise, the sea portion of the exercise is intended to challenge North African, European and U.S. maritime forces’ capability responding to irregular migration and illicit trafficking, the Navy said.

“Exercises such as Phoenix Express 2021 increase interoperability among participating nations in order to increase maritime security and sustain global commerce,” Capt. Harry Knight, Phoenix Express exercise director, said in a Navy news release. “Our maritime exercises allow us to develop our skills with our regional partners by learning from each other and working together.”

The exercise, one of three regional maritime exercises U.S. Naval Forces Africa conducts, will have 13 nations join this year. In addition to the U.S., those countries include Tunisia, Algeria, Belgium, Egypt, France, Greece, Italy, Libya, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco and Spain.

“Joint military exercises such as Phoenix Express reaffirm and deepen our exceptional bilateral cooperation with Tunisia and ensure that we meet our shared goals of a safe and secure maritime environment through regional collaboration and interoperability,” Donald Blome, U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, said in the release.

The exercise started May 17 and is slated to wrap up May 28. Phoenix Express, now in its 16th year, was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic.

A day after the exercise began, more than 50 migrants drowned or disappeared off the coast of Tunisia, while 33 others were rescued by workers from an oil platform, the Tunisian Defense Ministry said Tuesday.

Ministry spokesperson Mohamed Zekri said that the boat carrying migrants capsized Monday off Sfax, on Tunisia’s east coast. He said that personnel on the oil platform who saw the boat going under alerted authorities, and navy units were sent in to search the water for missing passengers.

Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the Mediterranean coordination office of the International Organization for Migration, said on Twitter that the 33 survivors were all from Bangladesh. The boat departed from Zawara, Libya, on Sunday, he said.

The nationalities of the people who died were not immediately clear.

An International Organization for Migration spokesperson in Tunisia, Riadh Kadhi, said the survivors reported that the boat carried about 90 passengers when it left Libya.

Libya is a frequent departure point for Europe-bound migrants making the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing.

Monday’s incident was at least the fifth deadly boat sinking in the last couple of months off Tunisia involving migrants escaping conflict or poor living conditions. Earlier this month, 17 migrants drowned and two were rescued after their boat sank off the Tunisian coast.

Tunisia’s official TAP news agency reported that navy units rescued another 113 migrants from Bangladesh, Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa on Monday afternoon as their boat was about to sink off Djerba, an island off the Tunisian coast.

Safa Msehli, an IOM spokesperson in Geneva, tweeted that teams from the U.N. migration agency were providing humanitarian assistance and shelter.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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