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Desperate for Europe, young Africans become amateur smugglers

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NOUADHIBOU, Mauritania (AP) - Aruna Dia looks out at the Atlantic Ocean and lists the people who've died in its waters on an illegal run he helped organize. "Moussa Si. Ibrahima Ba. Cheikh Diop. Moudu Si ..." He stops. There are too many to name them all. 

Dia is one of just 17 survivors out of 65 people who set out from this northwest African fishing port in a large canoe bound for Spain, an often deadly trip that has become one of the newest routes for Africans desperate to reach Europe's shores.

Dia -- who says he's 29 but looks closer to 19 -- recruited 22 paying passengers from his native Senegal in exchange for a free seat on the boat. The boat got lost a couple days into the usually three-day trip and ended up off the coast of Senegal, where a fishing boat found them and offered transport back to Nouadhibou. Dia and a few others took the offer, but many refused.

"These people had paid a lot of money, and they didn't want to lose their money," Dia said. "They wanted to go to Europe."

Shortly after moving on, Dia said they heard people shouting. They rushed back to find the migrant boat sunk and its passengers flailing in the water. They were only able to save two people.

"They brought me the photos the bodies and I had to identify them," Dia said. "I said 'Yes, I know them all.' "

Many of those taking the boats are from the neighboring countries of Senegal and Mali, nations whose citizens often have family or friends already in Mauritania. Authorities say those ties often help them sidestep professional smugglers.

"With this route they don't always need an agent," said Nouadhibou Police Chief Yahfdhou Ould Amar. "They can organize themselves -- find fuel, food and a captain -- and just leave." He said going through the desert to Morocco -- another common route -- usually requires an agent who can organize pass-offs between multiple handlers.

The amateur smugglers pull in acquaintances and family friends to fund a boat that they arrange in Nouadhibou.

Dia and two friends received free passage on two pirogues -- as the traditional fishing boats are called -- in exchange for recruiting others who paid full price. The going rate for passage on a boat is about euro500 (abut US$600), according to migrants and officials.

Dia said he simply called villages in Senegal where he knew people and told them to come, then housed them when they arrived.

"The captains of the pirogues are our friends. We know them because we're here all the time," said Jules Sall, 18, who recruited about five people for the second boat. Three people died on his boat, which got lost and then was captured by the Moroccan military.

Yet Sall and Dia continue to talk eagerly of Europe. But Dia said he is done with arranging others' passage, though friends still ask.

"Now so many have died, I won't do it."

On the other side of town, a group of 12 young men -- Senegalese all -- say they've banded together to organize a boat. They say the crash pad they live in is the home of their "association" -- a loose collection of men who want to go to Europe and are tired of getting cheated by the smugglers who still control many of the boats.

"Too many of us have had our money stolen," said Babacar M'Baye, the 25-year-old leader of the group.

M'Baye said they'll fund the voyage by recruiting 23 more people from Senegal -- limiting the boat to 35 people so that it isn't overloaded. He gives a detailed shopping list: 2 million ougiya (about US$8,000; euro6,000) for a fishing boat, then one new motor and one old motor, food and gas. They already have a GPS system and a compass, and two captains.

One of the captains, 26-year-old Mamadou Ba, said he's confident he can pilot the craft. He says he's sailed twice up the coast from the Senegalese city of St. Louis to Nouadhibou.

"That was also two or three days on the sea," Ba said. "It's the same thing."