ROME (AP) — At least 62 people died when a ship carrying African migrants toward Italy caught fire and sank off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, spilling hundreds of passengers into the sea, officials said Thursday.
Antonio Candela, the government's health commissioner for Palermo, told Sky TG24 that 62 bodies have been found and that search and rescue operations are continuing.
So far 141 people have been rescued, but the boat is believed to have been carrying as many as 500 people.
It is one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in recent times and the second one this week off Italy: On Monday, 13 men drowned while trying to reach southern Sicily when their ship ran aground just a few meters (yards) from shore at Scicli.
Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini said the dead on Thursday included a child of about 3 and a pregnant woman. "It's an immense tragedy," she said.
Coast Guard ships and helicopters from across the region, as well as local fishing boats, were on the scene trying to find survivors in the sea, said Coast Guard spokesman Marco Di Milla. The operation was taking place off the Isola dei Conigli, or Rabbit Island.
The migrants were from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, he said.
Nicolini said the ship had caught fire after those on board set off flares so it would be seen by passing ships.
Lampedusa is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and is the frequent destination for smugglers' boats.