Suspected migrant boat breaks up off San Diego

a group of people on a rock near the ocean: Debris from the boat washed up on to the beach (image: San Diego Fire Department) © SDFD Debris from the boat washed up on to the beach (image: San Diego Fire Department)

Three people died and some two dozen people were injured after a boat got into trouble off the coast of San Diego in a suspected smuggling operation.

The overcrowded 40-foot (12m) cabin cruiser broke up on a reef near Point Loma on Sunday morning, tipping some 30 people into the water, officials said.

A major rescue operation was launched to help the injured on shore and retrieve seven people from the sea.

Officials said the boat captain was in custody on suspicion of smuggling.

"Every indication from our perspective is that this was a smuggling vessel used to smuggle migrants into the United States illegally," Jeff Stephenson, Supervisory Border Patrol Agent, said.

"We haven't confirmed the nationality of the people involved, but our agents are with many of them at the hospital and the man who we believe was the operator... The investigation's still unfolding."

Rescuers were alerted to the incident near the Cabrillo National Monument, at about 10:30 local time (17:30 GMT).

Rick Romero, of the San Diego Fire Rescue Lifeguard, said first reports indicated three or four people needed help but they quickly realised it was "going to be a bigger situation with more people".

"Once we arrived on scene, the boat had basically been broken apart," he said. "Conditions were pretty rough: five to six feet of surf, windy, cold."

He said three people were in the water being taken out to sea by the rip current, while people on shore were needing CPR and treatment for hypothermia and other injuries.

Footage from the scene showed large pieces of debris washing up on the beach. Jet skis, three more rescue boats and cliff-top equipment were brought in to help with the rescue.

At the same news conference, Mr Stephenson it was not yet known where the boat had come from but many smuggling boats come from Mexico's Baha coastline.

"The smugglers, they don't care about the people they're exploiting. All they care about is profit to them," he said. "These people are just commodities. So you can see that in the way they treat them, inadequate safety equipment, really poorly equipped vessels and giving them minimal."

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Suspected migrant boat breaks up off San Diego