Seven hundred people are feared dead after a fishing boat packed with migrants trying to reach Europe capsized off Malta, the UNHCR said Sunday.
Spokeswoman Carlotta Sami told the Skytg24 news channel that only 28 people had survived the shipwreck. The survivors indicated there had been more than 700 on board, she said.
Rescuers at the scene of the shipwreck are searching for survivors among corpses floating in the water, Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said Sunday.
"They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water. This could possibly be the biggest tragedy to have ever taken place in the Mediterranean," Muscat said at a political meeting.
"Children, men, and women have died."
A Maltese patrol boat was among 17 vessels at the scene.
Italy's coastguard said the 28 people were known so far to have survived the overnight capsize of a packed fishing boat that was attempting to smuggle hundreds of migrants from Libya to Italy. The coastguard said 24 bodies had been recovered, an unchanged tally from several hours earlier.
The boat capsized off the Libyan coast overnight, 120 miles south of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, the Times of Malta reported.
The emergency was declared at about midnight. The boat is believed to have capsized when migrants moved to one side of the vessel when a merchant ship approached.
If confirmed, the tragedy would be by far the biggest in a growing catalog of mass drownings of migrants attempting to reach the European Union on overcrowded, unseaworthy boats run by people smugglers.
The disaster comes after a week in which two other shipwrecks left an estimated 450 people dead. More than 11,000 other would-be immigrants to Europe have been rescued by Italy's coastguard and other boats.
Some 1,500 migrants have now drowned in the waters between Libya and Italy since the start of the year.
Aid organizations have called for a concerted international effort to put better search-and-rescue systems in place and for action to stem the unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers and migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa seeking to reach Europe.
(With AFP and Reuters)SHOW MORE