Update 4 - Lampedusa death toll rises to 120 - Italian senator criticises Malta
At least 120 people died and 250 were missing after a boat packed with African migrants sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa this morning, the coastguard said.
Bodies fished 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.
"It's horrific, like a cemetery, they are still bringing them out," Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini told reporters.
The coastguard said 151 survivors had been rescued after the 20-metre (66 ft) boat caught fire and sank about 1 km (half a mile) off the island.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said around 500 passengers, all Eritreans, had boarded the boat in Libya.
The disaster came four days ago after 13 migrants drowned off eastern Sicily, and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said action was needed by the European Union to stem "a succession of massacres of innocent people".
Last year, almost 500 people were reported dead or missing making the crossing from Tunisia to Italy, the UNHCR says. Numbers have been boosted by thousands of refugees from the civil war in Syria.
"I commend the swift action taken by the Italian coastguard to save lives. At the same time, I am dismayed at the rising global phenomenon of migrants and people fleeing conflict or persecution and perishing at sea," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said.
Migrants frequently land on Lampedusa, just 113 km (70 miles) from the coast of Tunisia, often picked up at sea in dangerously overcrowded boats by the Italian coastguard.
Pope Francis, who visited the island in July on his first papal trip outside Rome, said he felt "great pain" for the "many victims of the latest tragic shipwreck today off Lampedusa".
"The word that comes to mind is 'shame'," Francis said in unscripted remarks after a speech in the Vatican. "Let us unite our strengths so that such tragedies never happened again."
The stream of migrants is a humanitarian and political problem for the Italian government. About 15,000 reached Italy and Malta - 13,200 and 1,800 respectively - by sea last year, the UNHCR says.
Calling the deaths of migrants "an endless tragedy," Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said: "The rescue operation began immediately but it is getting more difficult because now the weather is getting colder, they don't know how to swim, they don't know where to go."
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano cancelled a news conference in Rome to fly to Lampedusa.
A fishing boat raised the alarm at around 7:20 a.m. (0520 GMT) and began pulling people out of the water before coastguard vessels arrived on the scene.
Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said more needed to be done to combat people traffickers who coordinate the transport of migrants in crowded and unsafe vessels.
"It is a task which we have to take on and which the international community and the European community have to take on as well," he said.
As news of the drama emerged, an Italian senator said in a discussion programme on Rai 24 that Malta and Spain were condemning migrants to their deaths when they pushed them back.
Roberto Formigoni made his comment on RAI 24.
Malta, however, was not involved in this case.
In a statement Amnesty International said the waters around Lampedusa have again tragically become a graveyard for migrants.
"These grim events keep repeating themselves as thousands of people make the perilous trip across the Mediterranean to seek protection or a better life,” said Jezerca Tigani, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme.
“It is high time the Italian authorities and the EU increase their search-and-rescue capacity and co-operation in the Mediterranean Sea, rather than concentrating resources on closing off the borders. More must be done to prevent further loss of life in the future.”