A boat carrying hundreds of terrified migrants who had left the coast of Libya sank in rough seas off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa in the early hours of Wednesday. Rescue operations were hampered by strong winds and rough waters making it difficult for many of the migrants to be saved.
Italian coast guard officials are still searching for dozens of migrants, including women and children, lost at sea after a boat capsized overnight in the Mediterranean waters between the tiny island of Lampedusa and the North African coastline.
Survivors say the boat’s driver turned the lights off at one point and large waves pounded the boat and then it started to sink. People jumped overboard and swam toward approaching coast guard vessels. Many are feared to have drowned because they could not swim, or were dragged down by fellow passengers.
The incident is the worst since thousands of immigrants have begun traveling in makeshift boats to Italy following the unrest in North Africa. More than 300 migrants are believed to have been on the vessel. Italian officials say 51 have so far been rescued alive. At least 20 bodies have been recovered.
Fishermen were called to help with the rescue operations during the night. A fisherman says he assisted in the operations after the coast guards sent out a message saying there were people that needed to be rescued from the waters.
Italian helicopters and patrol boats were deployed as well as a Maltese plane, but officials said efforts were still being frustrated by strong winds and rough waters.
When survivors arrived in Lampedusa, they were given blankets, hot beverages and food. Many were suffering from hypothermia and some were immediately taken away by ambulance to the local hospital.
The International Organization for Migration, which has a presence on Lampedusa, says the boat left Libya carrying migrants and asylum-seekers from Somalia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Chad and Sudan.
More than 20,000 migrants have arrived from North Africa on Italy’s shores since the start of the year.
Italy has pressed Tunisia to step up patrols of its coasts and to take back migrants who make it to Italy. The two countries struck a deal Tuesday, with Tunis agreeing to the repatriation of new arrivals and Rome supplying equipment and other assistance to crack down on smuggling rings.