At least 33 people were reportedly dead and some are still missing after a boat carrying around 250 African migrants capsized Friday in waters between Malta and Italy, a week after a shipwreck left more than 300 people dead near the Italian shores, local media said.
According to Rai state television, 33 bodies including some women and children have been recovered so far after the heavily overloaded boat was toppled as the agitated migrants tried to catch the attention of a military aircraft that was flying over the area, some 104 km south of the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Earlier reports said some 50 people have died after the boat capsized.
A patrol boat of the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) rushed first to the spot, followed by two Italian navy ships that received an alarm from Maltese authorities. Helicopters were also launching life jackets and rafts into the sea.
Rai said that some 130 survivors were placed on a Maltese vessel, while around 50, including 10 children, were on an Italian navy ship. According to ANSA news agency, another 15 migrants were placed on an Italian fishing vessel.
The incident happened in waters where Malta has search and rescue responsibilities, Italy's Defense Minister Mario Mauro told Rai.
"Our navy's ships intervened in waters of Maltese competence as soon as they were told there was a boat in trouble," Mauro said.
"This is the law of the sea, which says you have to move when someone is in danger," he added.
Meanwhile in Malta, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told a press conference at capital city Valletta Friday evening that Malta's largest Hospital Mater Dei was on full alert, and the disused mortuary at St Luke's Hospital had been reopened in case it was needed.
More than 200 migrants were rescued after their boat capsized south of Lampedusa on Friday evening.
The operation, coordinated by the Malta Rescue Centre, took place just inside the Malta Rescue Zone some 60 miles off Lampedusa.
Muscat said up to 9:00 p.m. local time, the Maltese patrol boat had also picked up four corpses, three of which were of very young children.
He added that in agreement between Malta and Italy, the migrants rescued by the Maltese patrol boat would be brought to Malta. However those who were too weak would be transferred to a hospital in Lampedusa.
He also had spoken with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and the two would call for concrete action by the European Union (EU) during the upcoming EU summit later this month.
Muscat said Malta and Italy had so far seen no real action from the EU, even though this was a European problem.
"We will be very strong with European politicians. I am not willing to come out of the Council meeting saying I am satisfied unless concrete action is taken," Muscat said, noting "The seas around us have turned into a cemetery."
He said that action which could be taken includes increased assistance to Libya to control its borders, changes to the Dublin II rules and amendments to enable migrants to enter Europe legally.
The heavily overloaded boat was first spotted by an AFM's King Air aircraft around 4:00 p.m. local time and an AFM patrol boat was first on the scene of the incident which is closer to Lampedusa.
A frigate of the Italian coast guard and Maltese patrol boat P-61 were quickly deployed to the scene, followed later by another two patrol craft from Lampedusa and another from Malta.
According to Malta's media reports, P-61, the AFM's biggest patrol boat, picked up 150 people, who are being brought to Malta. They are expected to arrive early in the morning. Another 56 migrants were picked up by the Italians.
"It was a new dramatic confirmation of the emergency situation," Letta was quoted as commenting on the latest disaster, which took place only days after more than 300 migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Somalia, died when another boat caught fire and capsized near Lampedusa on Oct. 3.
During that mishap, only 155 of the estimated 518 people on board the ship survived. A total of 339 dead have so far been ascertained while divers were still searching for the missed, according to national newspaper Corriere della Sera.
A study found that nearly 20,000 people have died in the hazardous Mediterranean crossing over the past 25 years.
Italy has repeatedly called on the European Union (EU) to enhance efforts to help deal with the migrant issue. This year, more than 30,000 African migrants have landed on the country's shores.
Visiting Lampedusa on Wednesday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the EU would speed up efforts to help with the situation in the Mediterranean.