Scores killed as migrant boat sinks off coast of Sicily

Accident is the latest in a string of drowning incidents involving asylum seekers off the Italian coast

Bodies of drowned migrants are lined up in the port of Lampedusa on Thursday.
Nino Randazzo/AP

More than 114 people drowned and 150 were rescued after a boat carrying hundreds of people caught fire and capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa on Thursday, the Italian coast guard said.

The 66-foot boat left from Tripoli, Libya, with migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, Italian coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla told reporters. Lampedusa is an island lying between Tunisia and Sicily and is a major entryway for asylum seekers into the European Union, with thousands arriving every year.

The mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, said 82 dead bodies had been recovered and the toll was rising, with the bodies being laid out on the harbor early Thursday.  

"It's horrific, like a cemetery, they are still bringing them out," she told reporters.

"We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances," Pietro Bartolo, chief of health services on Lampedusa, told Radio 24. 

An estimated 200 or more people are still unaccounted for, Al Jazeera's Sonia Gallego reported. Officials believe that as many as 500 migrants were on the vessel. 

"Most of them can't swim. Only the strongest survived," said Simona Moscarelli, a legal expert in Rome for the International Organization for Migration.

Only three of the estimated 100 women on board have been rescued so far, and none of the 10 children believed on board were saved, she said. Two of the dead were pregnant. 

"The survivors are in a state of shock," Nicolini said on news channel SkyTG24.

"They have been in the water since the early hours of the morning," she said as emergency workers raced to pluck more survivors out of the sea.

Nicolini said the migrants had told her they lit a small fire on their boat around half a mile from the shore to attract the attention of coast guards after the vessel suffered a technical failure. The fire then spread, leading to panic on board.

"The first assistance was provided by people on pleasure boats who heard the screams," said Antonino Candela, a local emergency medical worker.

Candela said the incident happened shortly after another boat, believed to be from Syria, arrived safely in Lampedusa with 463 people on board.

The accident was the latest in a series of recent drownings involving migrants near the Italian coast. On Monday, 13 asylum seekers drowned as they tried to swim ashore after their boat ran aground off the coast of Sicily.

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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