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— File photo
— File photo

MIAMI: Seventeen Haitian suspected illegal migrants died Wednesday when their boat capsized off the Turks and Caicos islands near the Caribbean, authorities said.

The incident occurred in the early hours of Christmas Day as the boat, which had been intercepted by police, was “being towed into dock” at Providenciales, the government of the British territory said in a statement.

The toll was one fewer than first reported and thirty-three people were rescued and taken to an immigration detention center, police commissioner Colin Farquhar said, adding “no further casualties are anticipated.” "The search for casualties has been called off for today due to poor light and rough seas," he explained.

A US Coast Guard helicopter earlier had been scrambled to help.

“A scaled down search will begin again tomorrow.”

The survivors “consisted of 21 males, including one child, and 12 females. These people will be repatriated to Haiti at the earliest opportunity,” he said. No time frame was immediately given.

“The stricken vessel has now been removed from the water and will be central to our ongoing investigations into this matter,” Farquhar added, stressing: “We must all remain vigilant to combat illegal migration.”

Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office said, “we regret the loss of life. The emergency response is being led by the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force.

The Governor in the Turks and Caicos Islands is keeping us informed of developments.”The British-dependent island chain is located about 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Haiti, and about 550 miles southeast of Miami.

Haiti was already the poorest country in the western hemisphere before a 2010 earthquake, which left 250,000 dead and set the island nation's limping economy back still further.

Migrants from Haiti often undertake perilous journeys aboard precarious and often overcrowded boats headed for the Bahamas or the United States.

In May 2007, more than 60 migrants were killed when their vessel capsized off Turks and Caicos.

In July 2009, 15 Haitian migrants died and nearly 70 others were never found after a boat carrying up to 200 people struck a reef and capsized off the islands.

Last month, about 30 Haitian migrants died after an overloaded freighter overturned in the Bahamas, the US Coast Guard said. About 110 others were rescued in rough seas.

Stern Lolo, director of Haiti's National Migration Office, has said the government tries to discourage migrants from taking to the seas through a public information campaign and radio spots, but does not have the means to patrol its own shores.

More than 170,000 Haitians are still living in tents and makeshift housing as the fourth anniversary of the January 2010 quake approaches, at risk of disease and the hurricanes that often batter the island.

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