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Survivors of recent shipwreck at an unknown location between Libya and Italy, Isman Mowlid of Somalia (L) and Mahmud Muaz of Ethiopia attend a news conference in Athens, Greece, April 21, 2016. REUTERS/Michalis Karagiannis

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By Lefteris Karagiannopoulos and Abdi Sheikh

ATHENS (Reuters) - A knife-wielding human trafficker prevented survivors of a shipwreck from pulling others to safety, leaving them to drown in the dark, one of the surviving migrants said on Thursday.

Up to 500 people are believed to have died in last week's disaster, when an overcrowded boat sank in the southern Mediterranean. Just 41 people were eventually saved by a passing merchant ship and brought to Greece on April 16.

Muaz Mahmud, 25, from Oromia in Ethiopia, managed to escape the packed vessel as it was sinking and clambered onto a nearby boat. However, a people smuggler prevented them from helping others still in the sea, saying they had to leave immediately.

"I told him 'don't start motor please we have to save these people'. He took a knife. "I am going to kill you, we don't stand here," and then I just cried," Mahmud told reporters, speaking in broken English.

He had been with his wife and 2-month-old baby, having paid $1,800 each for the passage. They are feared drowned.

While the handful of survivors recounted their tales of horror, families of those still missing, many of whom were believed to be from Somalia, described how their relatives had hoped to reach Europe and escape poverty.

In Somalia's bombed-out capital, the parents of Mohamed Farah, 25, are still awaiting word of his fate. His family and friends had scraped together thousands of dollars to help him to make the perilous trip over land and sea to Europe. They have been told his picture was not among those of the survivors.

"Is he alive or dead? His mother has not eaten food for days," said Ali Nur, his 23-year-old cousin and friend. "The agent (trafficker) is the criminal behind the disaster. He got rich from the Somalis drowning in the sea."

The stories from the survivors and grieving relatives give a clear timeframe for one of the worst such tragedies in recent years, showing not just the dangers of the journey but also the relative sophistication of the human trafficking ring.

More than 150,000 migrants reached Italy by boat last year, with some 25,000 arriving so far this year. About 800 are believed to have died trying to make the crossing since January.

NIGHTTIME RENDEZ-VOUS

Mohamed Farah left Mogadishu in early February, travelling through Somaliland, Ethiopia and Sudan before reaching Egypt. On April 8 he called home to say he was set to leave, having paid about $3,000 for his place on the boat.

"'We are going to sail, please pray for me, parents,'" Nur quoted him as saying in that final call.

It is not clear when precisely he put to sea, but survivors have said one boat with up to 300 people aboard departed somewhere from Egypt, while a second, smaller boat, carrying up to 200, left from near Tobruk in eastern Libya.

Many hours after putting to sea, these two vessels met up in the dead of night, probably on April 13. The smugglers transferred almost everyone onto the bigger boat, at which point it started taking in water. Survivors and officials say that between 400-500 were probably on board when it sank.

"When this boat was falling, we started swimming to save our life to the other boat. Some survivors on the other boat threw something to us (to help us). We were 10 people," said Mahmud.

With others still swimming towards them, the smuggler started the engine and abandoned them.

"We saw the dead guys with our eyes," said Mowlid Isman, 28, from Mogadishu in Somalia. Like Mahmud, he had managed to reach the smaller boat before it left. His sister and her baby did not and are feared drowned.

"Other peoples' families died too. There wasn't anything we could do because they were in the water (and) we moved away," he said, speaking through an interpreter.

Survivors said the smuggler headed towards Italy but at a certain point he boarded a third boat to return to Libya.

He promised to return with water and food, but never reappeared. He also left a satellite phone, with an Italian number for them to call.

"I called. It was the police, I called them to help us," Mahmud said. One ship passed nearby but did not pick them up, he said. A second boat finally found them and took them to Greece.

The survivors -- 37 men, three women and a three-year-old child from Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan -- said they had drifted at sea for three days.

They are now in Athens and Greek non-governmental organisation Praksis said they had all been given a one-month permit to stay in the country.

In Somalia, news of the disaster started to filter through on April 17. Farah's cousin said they got confirmation from a man nicknamed Magafe, which means 'he who never misses', who was the agent who had organised the doomed crossing.

"Before (Farah) sailed away we spoke to him and his friends whom he made on the way and with whom he stayed in Egypt. Now all of them are gone in the sea."

(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Abdi Sheikh reported from Mogadishu, Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Nairobi and Angeliki Koutantou in Athens; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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