At least 130 African migrants have died and scores are missing after their ship caught fire and capsized off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, spilling hundreds of passengers into the sea.
Ninety-four bodies have been recovered and a further 40 found in the wreck, according to health official on Lampedusa.
It was one of the deadliest accidents in recent times during the notoriously perilous crossing from Africa for migrants seeking a new life in the European Union.
In an indication of the scale of the unfolding tragedy, Italy’s interior minister, Angelino Alfano, cancelled his appointments and headed to Lampedusa to oversee the rescue operations first-hand. Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July, quickly sent his condolences.
“It’s an immense tragedy,” said Lampedusa mayor Giusi Nicolini, adding that the dead included at least one child of about three and a pregnant woman.
The migrants were from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, the coast guard said.
Antonio Candela, the government’s health commissioner for Palermo, said search and rescue operations were continuing.
He said 159 people had been rescued, but the boat is believed to have been carrying as many as 500 people, meaning some 250 were still unaccounted for.
Coast guard ships and helicopters from across the region as well as local fishing boats were on the scene trying to find survivors, said coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla.
Mayor Nicolini said the ship had caught fire after those on board set off flares so it would be seen by passing ships. The ship apparently then capsized, spilling the passengers into the sea near Conigli island.
It was one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in recent times and the second one this week off Italy. On Monday, 13 men drowned while trying to reach southern Sicily when their ship ran aground just a few yards from shore.
Lampedusa is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and is the frequent destination for smugglers’ boats. Hundreds of migrants reach the shores every day, particularly during summer months when seas are usually calmer. They are processed in centres, screened for asylum and often sent back home.
Those who aren’t usually melt into the general public and make their way to northern Europe, where immigrant communities are much bigger and better organised. In Italy, migrants can only work legally if they have a work permit and contract before they arrive.
According to the UN refugee agency, 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and Malta in the first six months of the year, almost double the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012. It is still a far cry from the tens of thousands who flooded to Italy during the Arab Spring exodus of 2011.
The numbers, though, have spiked in recent weeks, particularly with Syrian arrivals.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees had recorded 40 deaths in the first half of 2013, and a total of 500 for all of 2012, based on interviews with survivors. Fortress Europe, an Italian observatory that tracks migrant deaths reported by the media, says about 6,450 people died in the Canal of Sicily between 1994 and 2012.
Mr Alfano told reporters that the 20m (66ft) boat began taking on water after its motor went out. The passengers didn’t have any mobiles to call for help so instead set a small fire to flag passing ships.
But because gas had mixed with the water flooding the ship, the fire then spread to the ship itself. Passengers fled to one side of the boat, flipping the vessel, and some 450-500 people were flung into the sea, Mr Alfano said. A migration expert said only three of an estimated 100 women on the ship had been rescued, and no children have been saved so far.
Simona Moscarelli, of the International Organisation for Migration in Rome, said “only the strongest survived” the capsize and most of the migrants could not swim.
She based her comments on her agency’s early interviews with survivors.