As many as 900 migrants are feared to have died after their fishing boat capsized in the Mediterranean, according to Italian news agency Ansa.
28 people were rescued and 24 bodies recovered from the 20 meter-long vessel, which sank around 70 miles from the Libyan coast, south of the Italian island of Lampedusa, coast guard officials said.
The boat is believed to have capsized when the migrants shifted to one side of the overcrowded vessel as a merchant ship approached. Although the total number of migrants missing at sea is unknown – a survivor told Italian agency Ansa that 950 people were on board the vessel.
If confirmed, the death toll would bring the total number of dead since the beginning of the year to more than 1,500 as the flow of migrants seeking to flee poverty, war and insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East has continued.
Italian officials said 17 vessels from the navy and coast guard, merchant ships in the area and a Maltese patrol boat, as well as aircraft from the navy and coast guard, were involved in the search-and-rescue operation, which was being coordinated by the Italian coast guard in Rome.
The new deaths have fueled calls for a stronger response from Europe to the increasingly deadly migrant crisis playing out in the Mediterranean.
The British government has also come under fire for withdrawing support for maritime rescue missions as part of the replacement of an Italian-run EU programme with a smaller more land border-based approach.
On Sunday Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper told Channel 4 News: “I think it was wrong to withdraw from the European search and rescue programme and I think that needs to be restarted as soon as possible.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also conceded that “the current arrangements are clearly leading to these tragic consequences” and backed a change of course but insisted the “cure” lay not at sea but in dealing with the reasons people were seeking refuge.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage blamed David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy for the crisis. Asked if a European-wide response was required to deal with migrants trying to get into Europe, Mr Farage told BBC1’s Sunday Politics: “It’s the European response that caused this problem in the first place.
“The fanaticism of Sarkozy and Cameron to bomb Libya … what they’ve done is to completely destabilise Libya, to turn it into a country with much savagery, to turn it into a place where for Christians the situation is now virtually impossible. We ought to be honest and say we have directly caused this problem.”