At least 94 people have died after a boat carrying hundreds of migrants sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, with rescuers warning that the number could rise significantly as searches continue for around 250 people missing.
Coastguards said the alarm had first been raised early on Thursday morning by fishing boats who reported that a vessel was in trouble in the waters near the Mediterranean island that is a frequent destination for people wanting to reach Europe from the northern African coast.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said it believed there were around 500 passengers, all Eritreans who had boarded in Libya.
Initial reports said the boat is believed to have caught fire before sinking. More than 100 people had been rescued, Lampedusa's mayor, Giusi Nicolini, told SkyTg24, but many more were unaccounted for. She told the Ansa news agency that children were among the dead.
In a statement, the Italian transport minister, Maurizio Lupi, said 250 people were still missing after what he said was a "huge tragedy" that was "not humanly tolerable".
"We need to rescue those whose boats sink at sea, a task the men of the coastguard have been seeing to for months, but we also need to do everything possible to stop the traffickers of death who exploit the hope of the poor."
He added: "It is a duty which we must take on, which the international community and in particular the European Union must take on."
Italian media reported that Angelino Alfano, the deputy prime minister and interior minister, would travel to Lampedusa.
Earlier this week 13 men drowned in the waters off Sicily when their boat ran aground. At that time, both Alfano and Lupi, centre-right MPs, were at the centre of an Italian government crisis sparked by Silvio Berlusconi, which absorbed the nation for five days.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
Original headline: Italy boat wreck: dozens of migrants die as boat sinks off Lampedusa
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