Story highlights

The boat was headed to Italy, Egyptian military says

Follows foiled attempt to transport 294 migrants on another boat the same day

CNN  — 

Less than half the estimated 450 migrants believed to be on a boat that capsized off the Egyptian coast have been rescued, the country’s military said.

The vessel had set off from Egypt and was heading for Italy when it was found 12 nautical miles northeast of the town of Rashid – also known as Rosetta – in El Beheira Governorate on Wednesday afternoon, the Egyptian military said in a statement.

The statement added that 163 people had been rescued, while 43 bodies were recovered. Initial estimates put the number of people on board the boat at 600.

Mahmoud Aly spent Wednesday going between hospitals along the coast. His brother and cousin were on board the boat that capsized.

People gather at the port at Rashid on September 21 as the search continues

He told CNN his cousin was rescued but his 24-year-old brother is missing. “The boat had more people than it could take. It’s a wooden boat,” he said.

He said his family would spend the night on the beach waiting for boats to resume the search and rescue efforts at daylight. “We saw the last boat after sunset. Seven people were on board.”

‘This is a disaster’

Mohamed Abu Arab, a local fisherman, told CNN that he and other fisherman are used to finding three, four or five bodies from failed migrant crossing attempts.

“But we haven’t seen this before,” he said of the number of bodies from the latest incident. “This is a disaster.”

Survivors from the capsized boat in hospital in Rashid

Fishermen were the first to spot the capsized boat Wednesday, Arab said, and have been assisting the coast guard in the search for survivors. “Everyone is helping. All security agencies are involved.”

Most of the survivors he has seen were Egyptian, he said, but he believes there were also people from Sudan and Somalia.

Week of arrests

The Egyptian military has regularly announced efforts to combat illegal immigration. On the same day the Rasheed boat capsized, the coast guard foiled an illegal immigration attempt, rescuing 294 on board a boat off the shore of El-Alamein, according to a military statement.

A day earlier, the Egyptian military arrested 68 people on a boat trying to make its way to Europe. They were captured off the coast of Matrouh.

Survivors from a boat that capsized, off Egypt's north coast, sit in a police station in Rashid on September 21.

Last week, the country’s navy thwarted two attempts by people trying to cross from Egypt to Europe. More than 400 would-be migrants of various nationalities were arrested in that operation.

A perilous journey

Migrants are leaving African countries in large numbers for Europe, often in overcrowded, rickety boats. The perilous voyages often turn fatal.

Many of the refugees using the central Mediterranean route – which runs roughly from Libya or other north African countries to Italy – are from Nigeria, Eritrea and Gambia, according to the International Organization for Migration.

This year, over 300,000 have arrived in Europe by sea, landing mostly in Greece and Italy, according to UN estimates released this month. Almost 30% are children.

Of those who attempted the crossing, 3,211 people are believed to have died at sea, added the report.

CNN’s Sheena McKenzie, Susanna Capelouto and Madison Park contributed to this report