A boat crowded with migrants has capsized in the sea north of Libya, leaving at least 24 confirmed dead, with an unconfirmed death toll of up to 700 people, Italy’s coastguard says.
The coastguard said in a statement that the migrants’ 66ft vessel was reported to be sinking as a Portuguese-registered merchant ship, the King Jacob, approached to attempt a rescue.
It picked up 28 passengers, but the boat then capsized, sending hundreds more into the water.
The coastguard’s command and rescue coordination centre in Rome said the boat might have overturned “because its occupants moved to the side closest to the cargo ship”.
Italian news agency ANSA said the boat could have held 700 passengers, but the coastguard and other authorities said they had no immediate way to determine how many were aboard or how many might still be rescued.
Pope Francis was among those following the news.
“There are fears there could be hundreds of dead,” he told the faithful in St Peter’s Square. He bowed his head in silent prayer as did many of the tens of thousands in the crowd.
Wreckage of the boat was spotted in the sea.
“There are large fuel stains, pieces of wood, life jackets,” Italian border police General Antonino Iraso, whose force has boats deployed in the rescue effort, told television reporters.
When asked whether the boat capsized because the migrants rushed to one side as the Portuguese vessel pulled alongside, Gen Iraso replied: “The dynamics aren’t clear. But this is not the first time that has happened.”
Italy is the top destination for illegal immigration to the European Union, and the numbers of migrants attempting the dangerous crossing by sea from Libya swells as the springtime weather improves, providing calmer seas and warmer water. But the smugglers’ boats are invariably overcrowded and often too small for the open seas.
So far this year, more than 900 have died in failed crossings. Last week, 400 people were presumed drowned when another boat capsized.
In Britain Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “The world is horrified at the appalling loss of life that it is taking place in the Mediterranean and rightly angered by the cynicism of the criminal gangs who are profiting from this people-trade.
“My sympathies go out to those who have lost relatives and friends and to all who are caught up in this vile trade.
“Stopping this needless suffering is a huge international challenge which demands a comprehensive, co-ordinated response. We must target the traffickers who are responsible for so many people dying at sea and prevent their innocent victims from being tricked or forced into making these perilous journeys.
“I discussed ideas for effective action with G7 Foreign Ministers last week and will do so again with EU Foreign Ministers at our meeting in Luxembourg tomorrow.
“If we are to deal with this tragic situation effectively, we have to tackle it at every stage. As well as helping to identify and target the traffickers by offering the expertise of our National Crime Agency and security services, Britain can make an important contribution to addressing the factors driving migration through our aid programme in the key source countries.”