Rome, Oct 4 (): A ship carrying African migrants toward Italy caught fire and overturned off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa Thursday, drowning hundreds of passengers into the sea, officials said.
Lampedusa is 70 miles from the African coast. It is the nearby Italian island and the closest European arrival point for refugees. Migrants frequently land on Lampedusa and are picked up at sea by the Italian coastguard in dangerously overcrowded boats.
The boat is believed to be carrying around 500 African migrants. The coast guard said the boat had set off from Libya and the migrants were from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia.
Rescuers in Italy scrambled to locate survivors from one of the worst migrant tragedies in recent years. Rescue boats and helicopters are continuing to search the accident scene. Local fishing boats have also helped in searching.
They had recovered 93 bodies by midday and were searching for 250 still reported missing at sea. At least 150 people were rescued. Among the dead were four children, several women and a pregnant woman. The bodies of those who have died were laid out on the island’s harbour.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano cancelled his schedules Thursday and headed to Lampedusa to look after the rescue operations. Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said in a statement he was being constantly updated about the situation, with the death toll expected to rise. Floriana Segreto, a coastguard official said rescue operations were continuing.
Pope Francis, who came to Lampedusa in July, quickly sent his condolences. The leader of the Catholic Church had visited the island in July, in his first trip since his election in March, where he railed against what he termed “the globalization of indifference” towards the plight of migrants.
This is one of the deadliest wrecks in recent times, and the second this week. Four days back, a boat sank off the coast of Sicily, leaving 13 migrants dead.