A crowded boat filled with migrants capsized in wind-whipped seas near a tiny Mediterranean island on Saturday, sending them tumbling into the water, said the Italian coast guard, which pulled 149 of them to safety. There were fears at least two people but possibly many more were missing.
The coast guard said the rescue, before sunset, involving four of its motorboats and two of its specialised rescue divers, took place about 1 nautical mile from the beach of Isola di Conigli, an uninhabited islet only metres from Lampedusa, an Italian island south of Sicily.
It said those rescued, who included three children and 13 women, were brought to the port of Lampedusa, a vacation and fishing island.
At the port, two of those rescued, a Libyan and an Ethiopian, told authorities their wives weren’t among them, prompting fears the two women were missing offshore, according to Italian news agency ANSA.
The news agency later reported migrants had told authorities there were 169 passengers when their boat set out.
That meant as many as 20 migrants might be missing.
The coast guard later said a search was being conducted late on Saturday night for “any possible missing in the sea”.
“At the moment, no other persons have been found in the sea,’’ it said in a statement.
A pair of coast guard boats and a plane, aided by an Italian navy boat and helicopter as well as a motorboat and a patrol vessel from Italy’s border police force, were searching the sea.
Rescue efforts were launched after a private citizen signalled that a 10-metre-long boat was foundering about a mile from Lampedusa, the coast guard said, adding the distressed vessel had neither requested help nor signalled its position to the coast guard.
The coast guard said no bodies were spotted at sea during the rescue.
Risking their lives, migrants set out in unseaworthy boats launched by Libya-based human traffickers.
In a separate development, the Italian interior ministry said a humanitarian ship, with 213 rescued migrants aboard, has been assigned the port of Messina, Sicily, for disembarkation.
On Friday, two others who had been aboard the Ocean Viking were evacuated by helicopter to Malta, said Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee, the humanitarian organisations that operate the vessel.
One of those evacuated was a woman in an advanced state of pregnancy with twins, MSF said, while the other was a man who had gunshot wounds from his time in Libya. SOS Mediterranee said that earlier in the week, 90 of those aboard had been rescued from a stricken dinghy after being adrift for two days in the waters north of Libya.
The interior ministry said Malta, Germany, France and Italy had requested that the European Commission activate procedures to find countries willing to take the migrants. The ministry gave no indication how long that process might take, or when the Ocean Viking could disembark in Sicily.