Mediterranean migrants: Hundreds feared dead after boat capsizes.
Hundreds of people are feared to have drowned after a boat carrying up to 700 migrants capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, the Italian coastguard says.
A major rescue operation is under way after the vessel, thought to be just 20m (70ft) long, capsized at midnight local time in Libyan waters south of the Italian island of Lampedusa.
So far 28 people have been rescued and 24 bodies retrieved.
At least 900 other migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year.
The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said the latest sinking could amount to the largest loss of life during a migrant crossing to Europe.
Italian ships, the Maltese Navy and commercial vessels are all involved in the rescue operation, 130 miles (210km) off the coast of Lampedusa and 17 miles (27km) from the Libyan coast.
The Italian coastguard’s spokesman told the BBC the operation was still focused on search and rescue, “but in time it will be a search [for bodies] only”.
Twenty ships and three helicopters were currently involved in the rescue, he added.
The migrants reportedly fell overboard when they rushed to draw the attention of a passing merchant vessel, causing their ship to capsize.
Maltese PM Joseph Muscat said rescuers were “literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water”. He put the number of survivors at 50.
Mr Muscat told the BBC: “What is happening now is of epic proportions. If Europe, if the global community continues to turn a blind eye… we will all be judged in the same way that history has judged Europe when it turned a blind eye to the genocide of this century and last century.”
Lampedusa is scrambling to react to the latest horror in the seas off its coastline. Much of the harbour has emptied. Coastguard, customs and fishing boats all left before dawn to help with the rescue.
Marta Bernardini works for the charity Mediterranean Hope, which is based on the island and works with migrants. She told the BBC: “We are very sad. It’s so difficult for us who live and work in Lampedusa every day, to know that a lot of people die in this way, in the Mediterranean Sea.”
Lampedusa is the most southerly point of Italy – nearer Africa than the Italian mainland. Locals say that since January – when the EU took control of patrolling Europe’s maritime borders – between 9,000 and 10,000 migrants have arrived on the island.
There are currently 1,000 migrants in a detention centre on Lampedusa – an island of 5,000 people.