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At least 12 African migrants died and another 10 were missing after four boats carrying 120 migrants sank off Tunisia as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, a security official told Reuters on Saturday.

Ali Aayari, a lieutenant colonel in the Tunisian Coast Guard, added that 98 migrants were rescued off the coast of Sfax.

The coastline of Sfax has become a major departure point for people fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East and seeking a better life in Europe.

The interior ministry said this week that it had arrested more than 20,000 migrants off its coast last year. At least 15,000 reached the coast of Italy in 2021.

In recent months, dozens of people have drowned off the Tunisian coast, with an increase in the frequency of attempted crossings from Tunisia and Libya towards Italy.

Hundreds of thousands of people have made the perilous Mediterranean crossing in recent years.

Figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) showed that more than 123,000 migrants arrived to Italy in 2021, compared to more than 95,000 in 2020.