More than 100 migrants dead after boat sinks
A ship carrying African migrants to Europe caught fire and capsized off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, killing at least 114 people with 150 still missing.
Another 159 people were rescued.
It was one of the deadliest recent accidents in the perilous Mediterranean crossing that thousands of African migrants make every year, seeking a new life in the European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head to slip people into Europe aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy fishing boats, providing no life vests or other safety features.
"We need only coffins, certainly not ambulances," Pietro Bartolo, chief of health services on Lampedusa, told Radio 24 when he gave the death toll as 94 but said it would certainly rise.
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"It's an immense tragedy," said Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini.
Italy's coastguard later said divers saw at least another 20 bodies around the boat, which was now lying on the bottom of the sea.
Lampedusa is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland – a mere 70 miles (113km) off the coast of Tunisia – and is the frequent destination for smugglers' boats.
The 20 metre (66ft) boat was believed to be carrying 450 to 500 people, according to the International Organisation for Migration. The boat left from Tripoli with migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia.
Antonio Candela, a government health commissioner, said 159 people had been rescued.
Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens off coastguard ships and lined them up under multicoloured tarpaulins on Lampedusa's docks. At sea, Italian coastguard ships, local fishing boats and helicopters from across the region combed the waters, trying to find survivors.
"Most of them can't swim. Only the strongest survived," said Simona Moscarelli, a legal expert for the International Organisation for Migration in Rome.
Only three of the estimated 100 women on board have been rescued so far and none of the ten children believed on board were saved, she said. Two of the dead were pregnant.
Commander Floriana Segreto of the Italian coastguard said "divers of the coastguard have found the boat on the sea floor at a depth of 40 metres (130ft). At least 20 bodies were seen around the boat. The divers have yet to go inside the boat."
She added they were waiting for the weather to improve before they could recover more bodies.
According to interior minister Angelino Alfano, the ship began taking on water during the night after the motor was cut as it neared Conigli island off Lampedusa, a tiny speck of an island.
Usually smugglers have mobiles or satellite phones to call for help when they near shore or run into trouble, but this time they did not.
Instead, someone on board set fire to a piece of material to attract the attention of passing ships, only to have the fire spread to the ship itself.
The passengers all moved to one side to avoid the fire, causing the ship to flip over, spilling hundreds of men, women and children into the sea, he said.
Mr Alfano was one of several Italian officials who demanded the European Union do more to put an end to the smuggling operations and help border countries like Italy cope.
"Let us hope that the European Union realises this isn't an Italian problem but a European one," he said, heading to the island to oversee the recovery operation.