A boat believed to be crowded with at least 700 migrants capsized north of Libya overnight, leaving at least 24 confirmed dead and sparking fears for what could become the Mediterranean's deadliest known migrant sea disaster, Italy's Coast Guard and other officials said Sunday.
The incident prompted dismay among exasperated Italian officials and refugee aid agencies, and even drew a plea from Pope Francis — all of whom are demanding more European or international action to halt a tide of risky migration that has often turned deadly. Migrants have aimed for Europe's shores for many years, fleeing war, persecution and conflict in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. But the recent turmoil and warfare in Libya have made it easier for people-smugglers to take to the sea.
Italian prosecutors said a Bangladeshi survivor flown to Sicily for treatment told them 950 people had been aboard the craft involved in the latest disaster, including hundreds who had been locked in the hold by smugglers. Earlier, authorities said a survivor had told them 700 migrants were on board.
It wasn't immediately clear if they were referring to the same survivor, and Premier Matteo Renzi said Italian authorities were "not in a position to confirm or verify" the death toll.
Eighteen ships joined the rescue effort, but only 28 survivors and 24 bodies had been pulled from the water by nightfall, Renzi said.
These small numbers make more sense if hundreds of people were locked in the hold, because with so much weight down below, "surely the boat would have sunk," said General Antonino Iraso, of the Italian Border Police, which has deployed boats in the operation.
Prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said that there was no confirmation yet of the suvivor's account that about 300 people had been locked in the hold by smugglers when the vessel set out and that the investigation was ongoing.
After news of Sunday's disaster several government leaders called for emergency talks, and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said foreign ministers would discuss the immigration crisis at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday. European Council President Donald Tusk said he was considering calling a special meeting of EU leaders, a summit that Renzi had called for earlier.
Rescuers on Sunday were “checking who is alive and who is dead" among the bodies floating on the surface, said Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose tiny Mediterranean nation joined the rescue operations. He called it the "biggest human tragedy of the last few years."
The Italian Coast Guard said in a statement that the migrants' 66-foot vessel may have overturned because people rushed to one side when they saw a Portuguese merchant vessel approach it late Saturday night. The cargo ship had been dispatched to come to the migrants' aid.
On Sunday morning, the Coast Guard said at least 28 survivors had been rescued. Muscat put the number of survivors at 50, and International Organization for Migration spokesman Joel Millman said 49 survived.
"Since the waters of the Mediterranean Sea are not too cold at the moment, the authorities hope to find more survivors," a statement from Millman said.
Given the depth of the sea in the area — as much as 3 miles — it was possible that many bodies would never be recovered. This has been the case in similar tragedies off the coasts of Libya, Italy, and other Mediterranean nations in recent years.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement Sunday that 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean by sea and 3,500 died last year. This year, 35,000 asylum seekers and migrants have reached Europe so far and more than 900 are known to have died in failed crossings. Last week, 400 people were presumed drowned when another boat capsized.
Smugglers are capitalizing on migrants' desperation and taking advantage of chaos and violence in Libya, where rival militias, tribal factions and other political forces have destabilized the country since bloody end of the long dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
In Italy's parliament, the leaders of foreign affairs and defense commissions pushed for the European Union and the United Nations to prepare a naval blockade of Libya's coast in a bid to stop the human trafficking.
Without a military blockade, “the traffickers will continue to operate and make money and the wretched will continue to die,” said Pier Fernando Casini, the Senate foreign affairs commission president.
Pope Francis was among those following the news. "There are fears there could be hundreds of dead," Francis told the faithful in St. Peter's Square. He bowed his head in silent prayer as did many of the tens of thousands in the crowd. For a second day running, he called on Europe to do more to help Italy manage its continent-leading flow of migrants.
Until this Sunday's tragedy, calls for a naval blockade had mainly risen in Italy from the anti-immigrant Northern League party. That top lawmakers are now joining the chorus reflects rising impatience for decisive European action.
“Europe can do more and Europe must do more," said European Parliament President Martin Schulz. “It is a shame and a confession of failure how many countries run away from responsibility and how little money we provide for rescue missions."
The EU's foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, added migration as a last-minute emergency issue to an EU foreign ministers' meeting on Monday in Luxembourg.
Europe must mobilize “more ships, more overflights by aircraft," French President Francois Hollande told French TV Canal +.
"More EU countries must take responsibility for the refugee situation," said Sweden's Minister for Justice and migration Morgan Johansson, who called for an expansion of the EU's Triton border protection program, which only operates within 30 miles of the Italian coast.
The prime minister of Spain, another Mediterranean nation, also urged Europe to take swift action.
“Today, and this is the umpteenth time, we hear of yet another human tragedy in the Mediterranean, off the Libyan coast," Mariano Rajoy told a political rally. “It's a daily drama. Three days ago it was 400 people. Four days ago they were 10. Words won't do any more."