PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos Islands — Eighteen people believed to be migrants from Haiti died Wednesday when their overloaded sailboat overturned as their vessel was being escorted to shore in the Turks and Caicos Islands, officials in the British territory said.
The sailboat, which had about 50 people on board, abruptly capsized about 150 yards from the island of Providenciales, said Neil Smith, a spokesman for the government. The cause was not immediately known but overloading was a likely factor, he said.
About two hours earlier, in the pre-dawn hours of Christmas, the marine branch of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force had intercepted the sloop as a suspected migrant vessel and was escorting it to shore, Smith said.
Police recovered 18 bodies and are continuing to search for more with the assistance of divers and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.
Authorities rescued 32 people from the water and they are in custody on suspicion of attempting to illegally enter the territory. They were in custody in Providenciales, the territory's most populated island.
Turks and Caicos, southeast of the Bahamas, is a frequent destination for Haitian migrants seeking to escape their impoverished country and find work in the British territory's construction and tourism industries.
In November, an overloaded migrant sloop overturned in the southern Bahamas and an estimated 30 people drowned. The area is dotted with many tiny islands, reefs and patches of shallow water, making it treacherous for boaters and a frequent transit zone for smugglers seeking to evade capture.