MIAMI (Reuters) - As many as 40 Haitian migrants were feared dead after their ship bound for the Turks and Caicos Islands capsized in the Caribbean off Haiti's north coast, the U.S. Coast Guard said on Friday.
At least 21 dead bodies have been recovered since the ship went down early on Thursday morning, according to the Haitian government.
"The Haitian Coast Guard rescued 12 survivors but advised that 19 were still missing," the U.S. Coast Guard said in a statement.
A U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter crew joined the search on Friday morning, scouring Haiti's north coast between the cities of Cap Haitien and Port de Paix, Haiti, but did not find any signs of life, the Coast Guard added.
The Haitian government said the ship, a sailboat freighter carrying about 50 passengers headed for the Turks and Caicos Islands, sank near the coastal town of Le Borgne on the north coast.
The boat apparently tried to turn back due to high seas and ran aground on a reef, the Haitian government said in a statement.
Migrants from Haiti, Cuba and other Caribbean countries frequently sail through the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas in an attempt to reach the United States, often in overloaded and unseaworthy vessels.
"So far we have not found a trace of the ship," said Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss of the U.S. Coast Guard's Miami district station. "Based on the reports from the migrants, it appears the death toll may go up," he added.
"Our crews are searching with every intention to find these missing people and bring them back to their loved ones," said Captain Mark Fedor, the Coast Guard's district head of search and rescue.
"The sad truth remains that many have already perished and the Coast Guard urges all to reconsider taking the dangerous and illegal voyage at sea," he added.
In the past six months, the U.S. Coast Guard said it has intercepted 309 Haitians at sea. That is a much lower rate than the previous 12-month period, when 1,103 Haitians were rescued, according to the Coast Guard.
Miami is located more than 600 miles (965 km) from Haiti's northern coast.
The Haitian government urged Haitians to cease risking their lives on clandestine migrant smuggling boats, and condemned those who organize the illegal voyages. Prime Minister Evans Paul offered his "profound sympathy and solidarity to the families of the shipwreck victims."
Additonal reporting by Peter Granitz in Haiti; Editing by Will Dunham