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CATANIA, Italy (Reuters) - Up to 64 migrants died off the coast of Libya at the weekend when their flimsy boat sank, humanitarian groups said on Monday after speaking with survivors evacuated to Italy.

Eighty-six people were plucked from the stricken rubber dinghy on Saturday and eight bodies - all women - were recovered. But the boat had been carrying 150 migrants, said survivors, and many of the dead vanished beneath the waves.

"Among them there were many children who are believed to have drowned at sea," Doctors Without Borders said on Twitter. "Among the survivors was a three-year-old child who has lost her mother and arrived alone, and a family of 11 now a family of three."

The Italian coastguard said the migrants had been spotted on Saturday morning by a plane patrolling the seas on behalf of a European anti-smuggling operation. Rescuers believe their dinghy deflated following a puncture.

Such boats are regularly crammed with migrants by people smugglers operating from Libya and were never built to withstand crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Tommaso Fabbri, the head of Doctors Without Borders' mission in Italy, criticised the policies of Italian and European authorities who are trying to prevent migrants leaving the North African state in the first place.

"Only by opening legal, secure, stable and sustainable routes for those seeking protection will it be possible to prevent desperate people putting their own and their children's destinies in the hands of traffickers," he said in a statement.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that 2,832 migrants died last year trying to reach Italy from North Africa, down from 4,581 in 2016. Some 119,310 people made it alive to Italy in 2017 against 181,436 the year before.

The majority of the migrants are Africans fleeing war and poverty back home. Italy is working with various groups and authorities in Libya to slow the flow of newcomers.

(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Reuters