A boat crowded with migrants capsized in the sea north of Libya overnight, leaving at least 24 confirmed dead with the death toll expected to rise into the hundreds, Italy's Coast Guard said Sunday.
The Coast Guard said in a statement that the migrants' 20-meter (66-foot) vessel was reported to be sinking as a Portuguese-registered merchant ship, the King Jacob, approached to attempt a rescue. It picked up 28 passengers, but the boat then capsized, sending hundreds more tumbling into the water.
The Coast Guard's command and rescue coordination center in Rome said the boat may have overturned "because its occupants moved to the side closest to the cargo ship."
The Italian news agency ANSA said the boat may have held 700 passengers. But the Coast Guard and other authorities said they had no immediate way to determine how many were aboard or how many might still be rescued. The estimated death toll was expected to be clarified as officers interviewed survivors, although many bodies were expected never to be recovered.
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.
Wreckage of the boat was spotted in the sea.
`'There are large fuel stains, pieces of wood, life jackets," Italian Border Police Gen. Antonino Iraso, whose force has boats deployed in the rescue effort, told Sky TG24 TV.
When asked whether the boat capsized because the migrants rushed to one side as the Portuguese vessel pulled alongside, Iraso replied: `'The dynamics aren't clear. But this is not the first time that has happened."
Italy is the No. 1 destination for illegal immigration to the European Union, and the numbers of migrants attempting the dangerous crossing by sea from Libya swells as the springtime weather improves, providing calmer seas and warmer water temperatures. But the smugglers' boats are invariably overcrowded and often too small for the open seas.
So far this year, more than 900 have died in failed crossings. Last week, 400 people were presumed drowned when another boat capsized.