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Members of Libya's coast guard recover the body of a migrant who drowned off Tripoli's coast, August 23, 2014. REUTERS/Aimen Elsahli


TRIPOLI (Reuters) - More than 250 migrants may have died when a boat sank a kilometre (half a mile) off the Libyan coast, a coastguard official said on Sunday.

"We believe there are still more than 250 bodies trapped underwater," coastguard official Mohammad Abdellatif told Reuters. "When we went underwater we discovered that the boat is a lot bigger than we thought."

The boat sank late on Friday east of the capital Tripoli. Thousands of migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, have crowded into rickety vessels in recent months in an effort to reach Italian shores. Many boats have been wrecked.

The total number reaching Italian shores has passed 100,000 in 2014, the Italian government said this week.

Libya is a major departure point for this journey, and human traffickers are exploiting the political chaos and lawlessness that has blighted the country since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in an uprising in 2011.

Abdellatif said the coast guard had no resources for a rescue operation. "Most of the bodies washed on the shores are still there because we don't have any resources to move them," he said. "We contacted everyone, the health ministry and the Red Cross, but no one came to help.

Libya is facing anarchy as the weak central government is unable to control armed groups who helped oust Gaddafi but now have turned their arms on themselves.

Ministries in Tripoli have been mostly closed since fighting between two groups escalated last month as staff, trying to escape rockets and street gun battles, only show up sporadically for work.

(Reporting by Heba al-Shibani; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Andrew Roche and Stephen Powell)

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