Five people found dead in Puerto Rico waters after human smuggling incident

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(Reuters) -The bodies of five people have been recovered in waters near Mona Island in Puerto Rico, following a human smuggling event in which migrants were forced to get out of a makeshift wooden boat, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The bodies were found by Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources Park Rangers on Mona Island, the Coast Guard said in a statement, adding that 66 survivors including two minors were safely ashore.

“The smugglers basically forced the migrants to disembark, it appears that five of the migrants drowned in the process,” said Jeffrey Quinones, public affairs officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in a telephone interview.

Officials have not yet confirmed the nationalities of those on board, Quinones said.

Mona Island, a nature reserve, is located between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and has over the years been used by smugglers carrying people between the two. Migrants on that route are typically Dominican or Haitian.

“A lot of times (smugglers) leave people on Mona Island, leading them to believe that they’re in Puerto Rico,” Joel Seijo, a spokesman for Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, said.

At least 11 people drowned in May when a vessel carrying Haitian migrants capsized near Puerto Rico, amid a steady increase in migrants attempting to reach U.S. shores in dangerous marine voyages.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Miami and Ivelisse Rivera in San Juan; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Holmes)