By Gaia Pianigiani/New York Times
SIRACUSA, Sicily — In one of the deadliest recent shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, at least 94 migrants died Thursday off the coast of Lampedusa, an island south of Sicily, when their boat sank after a fire began onboard. More than 200 of the roughly 500 people on the vessel were still missing, officials said.
The victims were mostly from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, the Italian authorities said. At least two children were among the dead.
Italian television showed bodies lined up on the shore in dark green and black body bags. At least 151 people have been rescued, the authorities said.
The old wooden boat reportedly sailed from Misurata, Libya. In the early morning, the vessel moved close to shore and passengers ignited a blanket to signal their presence. Panicked passengers, who moved away to avoid the flames, put too much weight on one side of the boat, which tipped over, tossing many into the sea, Coast Guard officials said. Soon afterward, the boat was engulfed in flames. It sank just half a mile from the coast.
The Coast Guard was alerted on Thursday by people aboard boats in the area who saw the migrants’ boat in flames. Six vessels from the Coast Guard and the financial police, as well as three helicopters, were carrying out search-and-rescue operations.
The infrastructure and transportation minister, Maurizio Lupi, said in a statement that search operations were continuing and that the death toll was expected to rise.
Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July and prayed for immigrants and refugees there, reacted quickly to the disaster, with a poston his Italian-language Twitter account saying, “Pray to God for the victims of the tragic shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa.”
At an audience on Thursday, the pope called the loss of life a “disgrace.”
“Let us pray together to God for those who lost their life, men, women and children, for the relatives and for all refugees,” he said in Italian, according to Italian news services. “Let us unite our efforts so that similar tragedies do not happen again. Only a decided collaboration among all can help to stop them.”
Prime Minister Enrico Letta called the sinking “an immense tragedy” in a Twitter post.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 25,000 people have died in the Mediterranean in the past 20 years, including 2,000 people in 2011 and 1,700 people last year. In the first nine months of this year, 21,780 migrants reached Italian shores, 4,000 of them children, according to statistics released by Save the Children. Most of the minors were not accompanied.
“Italy and Europe cannot ignore such a constant flux of foreign minors arriving alone, without any adults to take care of them,” Raffaella Milano, the director of Save the Children Italy, said in a statement.
Mr. Lupi, the transportation minister, called the fight against human traffickers a “task which we have to take on and which the international community and the European community have to take on as well.”
António Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, commended the efforts of the Italian Coast Guard but expressed concern about the rising global phenomenon of migrants fleeing conflict or persecution and perishing at sea. In a statement, he pointed out that just Monday, 13 men drowned off Italy’s southern coast after trying to swim ashore when their ship ran aground.
Lampedusa is about 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia.
Dan Bilefsky contributed reporting from Paris.
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