By Brian Ellsworth
MIAMI (Reuters) -The U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 191 Haitian migrants aboard an overloaded sailing vessel off the Bahamas that was believed to be headed for Florida, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, a day after the encounter.
The Haitians were taken aboard two Coast Guard vessels on Tuesday to be given food, water and basic medical attention, and will ultimately be returned to the Bahamas and repatriated to their country of origin, a Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer Jose Hernandez, told Reuters.
The cutters were on routine patrol around the Bahamas' Great Inagua islands, about 540 miles southeast of Florida, in waters that have become hub of human smuggling operations between the Caribbean and Florida.
"These grossly overloaded vessels operate without proper safety equipment and are not built for these hazardous voyages,” Lieutenant David Steele, a Coast Guard liaison officer for the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, said in a statement.
The interdiction came as the Coast Guard searched for 38 people reported missing from a separate boat that departed the Bahamas' Bimini islands on Saturday and capsized in rough seas on Sunday. One survivor from that incident was rescued on Tuesday.
The Coast Guard said the nationalities of the vessel from Bimini, which lies just 50 miles east of Miami, have yet to be determined.
Sea-borne smuggling of Haitian migrants has become increasingly frequent as the Caribbean island nation deals with economic and political crises, as well as gang-related kidnappings. The Coast Guard said it has rescued more than 800 Haitians since October, on top of 3,900 picked up at sea over the five previous years.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Miami; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler & Simon Cameron-Moore)