More than 2,000 migrants disembark from Italian military ship "Etna" on July 19, 2014 in the port of Salerno, southern Italy, following a rescue operation
Rome (AFP) - Italian and Maltese rescuers found 18 bodies on an overcrowded migrant boat on Saturday, with Italian officials blaming toxic fumes from the engine and the Maltese military saying there could have been a stampede.
Three asylum-seekers were evacuated by Italian coastguards and rushed to hospital. One of them died on the way and two others were in a serious condition, officials said.
The boat is estimated to have had 400 people on board and was first spotted by a Danish ship south of the Italian island of Lampedusa in waters between Libya and Malta.
The Maltese military were immediately alerted and requested assistance from the Italian coastguard to help rescue the asylum-seekers from the wooden 25-metre (82-foot) boat.
"Eighteen bodies were found on the boat," Italian coast guard spokesman Filippo Marini told news channel SkyTG24.
The survivors were being taken to Italy, while the bodies of the victims were expected to arrive in Malta on Sunday.
The parents of a baby who died refused to hand him over to the Maltese and all three were on their way to Italy.
The Maltese military said the deaths were "possibly due to a stampede" as the migrants were rescued but Italian officials said they may have suffocated because of fumes.
Meanwhile a merchant vessel, the Panamanian-flagged City of Sidon, arrived in Porto Empedocle port in Sicily on Saturday with 61 migrants on board -- the survivors of another shipwreck tragedy close to Libyan waters.
Their boat was found on Thursday 36 nautical miles north of Tripoli and it sank as they were being rescued with 102 people on board, meaning that 41 are feared dead.
The survivors were from Gambia, Ghana and Mali.
Another merchant ship, the Liberian-flagged Jamila also arrived in Porto Empedocle with 206 migrants on board.
- Government 'powerless' -
A navy warship also on Saturday arrived in the port of Salerno with 2,186 migrants rescued in recent days, hailing from Egypt, Eritrea, Ghana, Somalia and Syria.
The navy said on its Twitter account that a second warship had rescued a migrant boat with 247 aboard south of Lampedusa, which is Italy's southernmost point and is closer to the African continent than mainland Italy.
A third warship was rescuing more migrants late on Saturday.
There has been a sharp rise in migrant landings in recent weeks because of the calm summer weather and growing lawlessness in Libya, with hundreds of migrants now being intercepted by Italian authorities every day.
Around 80,000 migrants are now believed to have landed in Italy so far this year -- higher than the previous record of some 60,000 arriving in 2011 at the height of the turmoil triggered by the Arab Spring revolutions.
Most of the migrants making the risky and often deadly journeys come from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria but there are also many arriving from across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
"The conditions of these journeys are becoming ever more perilous and are killing dozens of people every day," Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman in Italy for the UN refugee agency, said on the public news channel RaiNews24.
"Over the past 48 hours we have seen uninterrupted rescues by merchant vessels, military ships and the coastguard. There is a huge number of boats on their way," she said.
The centre-right opposition has accused Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's centre-left government of failing to tackle the problem head on and get more European assistance.
"The government is powerless and keeps taking in illegals. It's a costly, endless shame," said Maurizio Gasparri, a senator for Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.