At least 92 people have died after a boat carrying African migrants sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, the island’s mayor says.
More than 140 have been rescued but hundreds are missing, officials say.
Passengers reportedly threw themselves into the sea as the vessel got into trouble and Italian officials were quoted as saying that dozens of people were still in the water.
Earlier this week, 13 migrants drowned while trying to reach Sicily.
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BBC News, Rome
This marked a tragic end to a long journey from the depths of Africa.
Over the years there have been numerous disasters involving migrants off Lampedusa, but seldom on anything like this scale. The island’s mayor wept as she took in the scene on the harbour wall.
Furious demands are being made for an end to the dangerous trafficking of people across the Mediterranean. But it is hard to see how the flow could be curbed, with so many people so desperate for a chance to make a new life in Europe, and traffickers in so many ports ready to take their money.
In the latest incident, Simona Moscarelli, a spokeswoman from the International Migration Organisation in Rome, told the BBC that “at one point there was a fire on the boat and so the migrants moved, all of them, to one side of the boat which capsized”.
It is one of the worst such disasters to occur off the Italian coast in recent years; Prime Minister Enrico Letta tweeted that it was “an immense tragedy”.
The boat was believed to have been carrying about 500 people at the time.
“There is no miraculous solution to the migrant exodus issue,” said Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino. “If there were we would have found it and put it into action.”
The boat had set off from Libya and many of those on board were migrants from Eritrea, according to UNHCR spokesman Laurens Jolles in Rome.
Footage from the scene showed bodies being laid out on Lampedusa’s dockside.
The mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, described the scene as a “continuous horror”.
Local media reports say that at least one child and a pregnant woman are among the dead and that a suspected people smuggler has been arrested.
Rescued migrants arrive onboard a coastguard vessel at the harbour of Lampedusa
More than 140 people have been rescued from the shipwreck, officials say
This picture grabbed on a video released by the Guardia Costiera on October 3, 2013 shows some of the immigrants after their rescue near Lampedusa
The vessel reportedly capsized after a fire on board
Survivors of a ship carrying migrants which caught fire and sank off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa are seen aboard an Italian Coast Guard vessel
There are believed to have been around 500 people on board the vessel
Body bags containing African migrants, who drowned trying to reach Italian shores, lie in the harbour of Lampedusa
The bodies of the victims were lined up at Lampedusa dockside
“The immense tragedy at Lampedusa… is unbearable for any human being,” Italian Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said, according to Reuters.
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Estimated 7,800 migrants and asylum-seekers arrived in Italy in first half of 2013
Estimated 600 arrived in Malta in same period
Some 6,700 left from Libya and other parts of North Africa. Others crossed from Greece and Turkey
Most come from Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Somalia and Eritrea. Others come from Egypt, Pakistan and Syria
40 recorded deaths in first six months of 2013
Almost 500 reported dead or missing in whole of 2012
Pope Francis sent a Twitter message calling for his followers to pray for the “victims of the tragic shipwreck off Lampedusa”. In July he visited the island and condemned the “global indifference” to the plight of migrants trying to arrive there.
In a statement UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres commended the swift action taken by the Italian coastguard to save lives.
Mr Guterres also expressed “dismay at the rising global phenomenon of migrants and people fleeing conflict or persecution and perishing at sea”.
At this time of year, when the Mediterranean tends to be calmer, vessels carrying migrants from Africa and the Middle East land on Italy’s southern shores almost every day, the BBC’s Alan Johnston reports from Rome.
But often the vessels are overcrowded and are not seaworthy.
Also on Thursday, local media reported that around 200 migrants were escorted to the port of Syracuse on the island of Sicily, when the vessel encountered difficulties five miles off the coast.
The UNHCR said that more than 1,500 people drowned or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2011, making it the “most deadly stretch of water for refugees and migrants”.
The UN also said that almost 500 people were reported dead or missing at sea during 2012 in attempts to reach Europe.
On Wednesday a draft report from human rights body the Council of Europe said that Italy was “ill-prepared for a new surge of mixed migration on its coasts”.
Italy’s system for receiving and processing migrants and asylum seekers was not fit for purpose, a council committee on immigration said.
Ms Moscarelli said that closer international cooperation was needed to prevent such cases happening again.