ROME // At least 134 people were killed on Thursday after a ship carrying African migrants to Europe caught fire and capsized off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.
More than 150 people were rescued but about the same number were missing.
It was one of the deadliest incidents in the perilous Mediterranean Sea 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 caskets, certainly not ambulances,” Pietro Bartolo, chief of health services on Lampedusa, said. He gave the death toll at 94 but said it would certainly rise as search operations continued.
“It’s an immense tragedy,” said Giusi Nicolini, the Lampedusa mayor.
Italy’s coastguard later said divers saw at least another 40 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 113 kilometres off the coast of Tunisia – and is the frequent destination for smugglers’ boats.
The 20-metre 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, the Italian coastguard said.
Antonio Candela, a government health commissioner, said 159 people had been rescued.
Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens off coastguard ships on Thursday and lined them up under multicoloured tarps 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 IOM in Rome.
Only three of the estimated 100 women on board have been rescued so far and none of the 10 children believed on board were saved, she said. Two of the dead were pregnant.
The interior minister Angelino Alfano said 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 closer to Africa than the Italian mainland.
Usually smugglers have cellphones or satellite phones to call for help when they near shore or run into trouble, but this time they didn’t. 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.
The passengers all moved to one side to avoid the fire, flipping the ship and spilling hundreds of men, women and children into the sea.
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.
Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July to bemoan the frequent deaths of migrants, quickly sent his condolences.
“It is shameful!” he said during an audience at the Vatican.
Thursday’s disaster was the second shipwreck this week off Italy: On Monday, 13 men drowned while trying to reach southern Sicily when their ship ran aground just a few metres from shore.
While it was the deadliest such incident off Italy in recent times, Mr Moscarelli said there had been similar or greater losses of life farther out at sea and off the Libyan coast in recent years.
Libya, from where the migrants left about two days ago, is a frequent departure point for migrants.
“There are lots of Eritreans in detention centres in Libya,” Mr Moscarelli said. “These people are not economic migrants. They are fleeing persecution,” often from their military service.
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse