At least 31 people have drowned in the English channel as they tried to reach Britain, French interior minister Gerard Darmanin told journalists on Wednesday, adding the figures were not yet definitive.
Mr Darmanin added the French police had arrested four people suspected of being linked to the drowning which he called “the biggest (migrant) tragedy that we have seen”.
One fisherman called the rescue services after seeing an empty dinghy and people floating motionless nearby. Franck Dhersin, deputy head of regional transport and mayor of Teteghem on the northern French coast told Reuters that the death toll had reached 31 and that two people were still missing.
Mr Darmanin said he was headed there. “Strong emotion in the face of the tragedy of numerous deaths due to the capsizing of a migrant boat in the English Channel,” he wrote in a tweet.
British prime minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked and appalled” by the deaths. “My thoughts and sympathies are with the victims and their families ... but this disaster underscores how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way,” he said after chairing an emergency cabinet meeting.
Two helicopters and three police or rescue boats were at the scene, local authorities said.
One fisherman, Nicolas Margolle, told Reuters he had seen two small dinghies earlier on Wednesday, one with people on board and another empty.
He said another fisherman had called the rescue operation after seeing an empty dinghy and 15 people floating motionless nearby, either unconscious or dead.
He confirmed there were more dinghies on Wednesday because the weather was good. “But it’s cold,” Mr Margolle added.
Early on Wednesday, Reuters reporters saw a group of more than 40 migrants head towards Britain on a dinghy.
The Channel is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and currents are strong. Overloaded dinghies often barely stay afloat and are at the mercy of waves.
While French police are preventing more crossings than in previous years, they have only partially stemmed the flow of migrants wanting to reach Britain in what has become one of the many sources of tensions between Paris and London. – Reuters