Tunisia arrests suspected smuggler behind deadly shipwreck

People wait to receive the bodies of loved ones in the Tunisian town of Sfax on June 4, 2018 after more than 87 migrants died. (File photo: AFP)

Tunisia on Friday said it has arrested a suspected people smuggler who organized a doomed sea voyage in which 87 migrants were killed when their overloaded fishing vessel sank.

The boatload of illegal migrants had taken off on June 2 from Tunisia heading for Europe when the tragedy occurred.

Survivors said there were at least 180 people on board when the fishing vessel began to sink near Tunisia's Kekennah Islands off the southern coastal city of Sfax.

The interior ministry said that at least 87 people died in the tragedy -- 66 of them Tunisians, 20 from sub-Saharan Africa and one Libyan -- while 68 were rescued. Search operations are still underway.

Ministry spokesman Sofiene Zaag on Friday told AFP that the mastermind of the voyage had been arrested as he tried to flee Kerkennah in the boot of a car.

He said the suspect is a 32-year-old from Kerkennah.

Following the shipwreck, Tunisia's interior minister Lotfi Brahem and 10 security officials were sacked.

The June 2 shipwreck was one of the deadliest in the Mediterranean since February 2, when 90 people drowned off the coast of Libya, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The IOM said that at least 112 people had died when the fishing vessel sank.

Tunisians and other migrants regularly try to cross the Mediterranean to seek a better future in Europe.

Nearly 6,000 migrants have attempted the dangerous sea crossing from Tunisia since the beginning of the year, according to former interior ministry spokesman Khlifa Chibani.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:57 - GMT 06:57