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#3386: 300 People, 14 Dead, Found Stranded on Isle in Bahamas (fwd)


April 28, 2000
 300 People, 14 Dead, Found Stranded on Isle in Bahamas

NASSAU, the Bahamas, April 27 -- Fourteen Haitians died and 264 others
were stranded on an uninhabited island for an unknown period of time
after their overloaded 50-foot boat broke down at sea about 200 miles
southeast of here, United States Coast Guard officials said today.     
Bahamian and American vessels participated in the rescue effort,       
which began on Wednesday evening after passengers on three         
sailboats passing nearby spotted hundreds of dehydrated and weak      
people on Flamingo Cay. They radioed Bahamian authorities, who         
in turn requested the help of the United States Coast Guard, which      
maintains ships and helicopters in the region for drug interdiction and
 rescue operations. Dozens of the weakest Haitians were rushed by       
helicopter to the nearest clinic, about 70 miles away at Georgetown,
Exuma, while the others were evacuated from the barren island late today
aboard the  Royal Bahamas Defence Force vessel the Bahamas.             
Michael Minns, who owns a market and a small marina in  Georgetown, was
among the first to be notified about the emergency on the island,      
and helped coordinate the rescue efforts at the request of the
Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association. He said that throughout Wednesday
night, he fielded anxious mayday calls from the sailors who discovered
the people on the island. The calls quickly became urgent when a doctor
who had been aboard a passing boat stepped ashore to tend to them, whom
he described as being in desperate condition. When the first 11 of the
most seriously ill reached the one-doctor clinic at Georgetown, he    
thought they were headed for the morgue. Some of them were comatose," he
said. "I thought they were dead.They had on very little clothing, some
were in their underwear and they were covered with dust and dirt. None
of them could walk. Most had trouble even holding their heads up." Mr.
Minns said the 11 recovered after being given intravenous        
fluids, but communication was difficult, he said, because they only   
spoke Creole. He said 11 others arrived later that night. Authorities
unsure how they became stranded, but they assume they were being
smuggled to the United States.  "'We don't know whether the vessel sank
or it just dropped them off," said Petty Officer Gibran Soto, a Coast
Guard spokesman in Miami. "There was no vessel nearby, and we don't know
how long they were there." Mr. Minns said he provided food and water
from his store to be taken to the Haitians today. He said he had heard
unconfirmed reports from some people involved in the rescue that the
boat's engine had broken under the strain of its load, and that it might
have drifted for as long as six days.  "The boat drifted to the shore
and they were stuck," Mr. Minns said.They were on a small, dry cay
without much to protect them." Because the Haitians were discovered in
Bahamian territory, Bahamian authorities will have the responsibility of
repatriating them  to Haiti. This is the largest such incident of
intercepted or stranded immigrants, but it is hardly the first. Haitians
have long come here to seek work in menial jobs in gardening,
construction or housecleaning, fleeing the poverty and violence that has
crippled  their homeland for years. Others slip into the Bahamas looking
for another smuggler to take them to the United States, paying a price
that is dear, and sometimes deadly, for the privilege of packing   
themselves into rickety and creaky boats. In 1995, smugglers threw     
100 Haitians overboard to lighten a boat headed for the Bahamas.      
All were believed to have drowned. Political repression, violence and
searing poverty have led Haitians to flee in great numbers. Last year
the Coast Guard intercepted 480 Haitians trying to enter the United
States, and 1,437 in 1998. The discovery of this latest group comes at a
time when Haiti is confronting election-related violence as it prepares
for next month's parliamentary elections, which have already been
postponed several times. Haitians are fearful that the violence, which
has already claimed,among others, the life of a prominent radio
commentator, will only increase as it heads towards presidential
elections later this year. All the while, the nation has been at an
economic and political standstill,with no legislature, almost no
investment and even less foreign aid, and a devastated social and
physical infrastructure. Bahamian authorities told the Reuters news
agency that several hundred Haitian immigrants were intercepted in
Bahamian waters in recent weeks. Anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 Haitians
live illegally in the Bahamas, a nation of 700 islands that is home to
280,000 people. "We are being engulfed," a Royal Bahamas Defence Force
senior commander, Raymond Farqhuarson, told Reuters. Mr. Minns said that
he receives distress calls from Bahamian seamen who discover stranded
Haitian vessels about every six weeks. "It's constant," he said. "Some
vessel with a broken engine, lost in the water. They put a whole lot of
people on board and not enough food and water. They have no navigation
aids, or even a compass."