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Italy: 29 African Migrants Die on Mediterranean Crossing

FILE - Photo provided by the Italian Navy shows rescue crews approaching migrants on a rubber boat some 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Italian authorities say at least 29 African migrants have died of hypothermia while crossing the Mediterranean in freezing weather and rough seas.

The Italian coast guard says it found seven people dead when it answered a distress call from the migrants' boat off Libya late Sunday. It says 22 others died on a vessel that brought the migrants to the island of Lampedusa through waves as tall as nine meters high.

All 29 victims were men from sub-Saharan Africa. Another 76 migrants survived the journey, which began on a tightly-packed inflatable boat.

Lampedusa mayor Giusi Nicolini blamed the deaths on Italy's cancellation of a rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum. The operation allowed Italian navy ships to patrol waters near Libya, searching for migrant boats so the passengers could be brought safely to shore.

Mare Nostrum was started after more than 360 people, mostly Eritreans, died when their boat capsized near Lampedusa in October 2013.

Triton, the European Union-funded rescue program now in place, allows only for small patrol boats to be sent on rescue missions, resulting in more dangerous sea journeys for the migrants.

A record 170,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe in 2014, one quarter of them fleeing the violence in Syria. More than 3,000 others died attempting the journey.

Experts say the volume of immigration in 2015 already looks to be outpacing last year.

Lampedusa, about 113 kilometers from the African mainland, is a major destination for illegal immigrants seeking European shores.