More than 100 people drowned and over 200 were unaccounted for after a boat packed with African migrants caught fire and sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa on Thursday.
The disaster occurred when the boats motor stopped working and the vessel began to take on water,Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said. People on board burned a sheet to attract attention of rescuers,starting a fire on board.
Once the fire started,there was a concern about the boat sinking and everyone moved to one side,causing the boat to go down, he told a news conference.
The 20-metre vessel,believed to be carrying around 500 people,sank no more than 1 km from shore.
Bodies pulled from the water were laid out along the quayside as the death toll rose in what looked like one of the worst disasters to hit the perilous route for migrants seeking to reach Europe from Africa.
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Its horrific,like a cemetery,they are still bringing them out, Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini told reporters.
After 94 bodies were recovered from the surface,divers inspecting the wreck,sunk in 40 metres of water,saw dozens of bodies,bringing the total of known dead to well over 100 with more than 200 still unaccounted for,coast guard official Floriana Segreto said.
Alfano said three children and two pregnant women were among the victims.
The disaster happened four days after 13 migrants drowned off eastern Sicily. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said action was needed by the European Union to stem a succession of massacres of innocent people.
The crew of a fishing boat raised the alarm around 7:20 am and began pulling people out of the water before coastguard vessels arrived on the scene. The coastguard said 151 people had been rescued.
Between 450 and 500 people,most either Eritreans or Somalis,appeared to have been on board the boat,which had come from Misrata in Libya,Alfano said.