At least 35 people are feared to have drowned after an inflatable boat carrying up to 60 migrants and refugees sank while en route to the Canary Islands early on Wednesday morning.

The Spanish migration NGO Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders) said 60 people were on the boat, of whom 39 were missing. Another migration NGO, Alarm Phone, put the number of people onboard at 59 and said 35 were missing.

Spain’s maritime rescue service said Moroccan authorities had rescued 24 people, while a Spanish helicopter had recovered one of two bodies that had been located.

“The boat got into difficulty and sank,” said a spokesperson for the service. “A rescue operation was launched by the Moroccan authorities and they told us that one of their patrol boats rescued 24 people this morning. They asked for our help and one of our helicopters recovered the body of a minor, which was taken to Gran Canaria airport. Later on, a container vessel that took part in the search operation located another body.”

The spokesperson added: “We don’t know exactly how many people have disappeared but there could have been as many as 60 people aboard the inflatable boat.”

She said 51 people had been rescued from another boat that had got into difficulty seven miles off the east coast of Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, on Wednesday morning.

The two migration NGOs accused the Spanish and Moroccan authorities of failing to move quickly enough to help those onboard the inflatable boat.

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“Having 60 people – among them six women and a baby – waiting for rescue for more than 12 hours on an unstable inflatable boat that could sink at any moment is torture,” said Helena Maleno, who leads Walking Borders.

Alarm Phone tweeted: “Shipwreck in the Atlantic! We learned that of the 59 people shipwrecked, only 24 people were intercepted by the Moroccan navy. At least 35 people are still missing. Why did nobody intervene earlier?”

According to Spain’s interior ministry, 5,914 people have reached the Canaries by boat so far this year – a 31.5% decrease on the same period last year.

Over recent years, conflict and instability, the climate crisis, border closures during the Covid pandemic and increased controls in some north African countries have led the gangs that ferry migrants and refugees between Africa and Europe to make greater use of the dangerous Atlantic route to the Canaries.

UN figures show 29,895 people reached Spain by sea last year, while 643 died in the attempt. In 2021, 41,979 people arrived by boat, with 418 dying in the attempt.

The early summer months are a peak time for migrants and refugees to seek to cross to Spain by sea. A pregnant woman died this week onboard a dinghy as she tried to reach the country. Spain’s coastguard said on Tuesday that the woman’s body was found on a vessel carrying 42 men, seven women and three children near the Atlantic coast of Lanzarote.

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On Monday, another trawler spotted a boat near Mogán, in Gran Canaria, with 53 people onboard. Three of them were in poor health, the coastguard said.

Meanwhile, more than 500 people are still missing, presumed dead, after a boat crammed with 750 people sank off the southern coast of Greece on 14 June.

Amid mounting criticism of the way the disaster was handled by Greek authorities – which were first alerted to the vessel about 15 hours before it capsized – nine people suspected of being behind the smuggling operation appeared before a prosecutor in Kalamata on Tuesday. The suspects, who are all Egyptian and aged between 20 and 40, according to state-run TV, categorically denied piloting the doomed ship.

In another incident, late on Wednesday 63 people, including eight women and eight children, were transferred to Kalamata after being rescued by the Greek coastguard.

The group had been at sea for seven days after the yacht they had boarded in Turkey bound for Italy ran into engine trouble and stalled. The stricken boat strayed into Greek waters when efforts to save the group began.

In scenes played out last week when survivors of the capsized trawler, which had set out from Libya, were also brought ashore, the migrants were hosted in a warehousein the port city, where the International Red Cross rushed to offer assistance.

Reuters contributed to this report

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