Hundreds of African migrants are dead or missing in the Mediterranean Sea, after a disabled boat carrying an estimated 500 people to a hoped-for better life in Europe caught fire and sank off an Italian island.
The Italian state news agency ANSA said the boat, carrying Eritrean and Somali asylum seekers, went down in flames early Wednesday after migrants tried to send a distress signal by lighting a blanket on fire. Witnesses said the fire inadvertently ignited leaking fuel.
Hours later, television footage showed bodies recovered by Coast Guard rescuers laid out along a sea wall in the port of Lampedusa. Rescue efforts continued into Thursday evening, with estimates of 300 people dead or missing. ANSA reported 150 survivors.
The disaster, described as one of Italy's worst migrant maritime tragedies, came just days after 13 would-be migrants drowned off the coast of nearby Sicily after their boat sank and they tried to swim to shore.
Lampedusa, an island closer to continental Africa than to the Italian mainland, is often the destination for boats full of migrants seeking entrance to the European Union.
The United Nations refugee agency says the boat originated in Libya.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres expressed "shock" about the boat tragedy. He also expressed dismay at what he called a "rising global phenomenon" of people fleeing conflict or persecution only to perish at sea.
The blog Fortress Europe, which tallies migrant deaths, says more than 6,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Africa, have died in the Sicilian Channel since 1994.