Rome (AFP) – Thirteen asylum-seekers drowned on Monday while attempting to swim ashore after their vessel ran aground off Italy's coast, the local mayor said.
"There were 13 dead. Some people were saved and sent to nearby hospitals," Franco Susino, the mayor of Scicli in Sicily near where the incident happened, said on the news channel SkyTG24.
"We did what we could to save human lives. Some tourists raised the alarm and helped out," he said, adding he believed the migrants had been thrown overboard by crew members.
"These people are treated like animals," he said.
The bodies could be seen splayed out on the beach in video images taken shortly after the incident. They were later wrapped in white blankets.
The mayor declared Tuesday as a day of mourning.
SkyTG24 and the ANSA news agency said there were between 150 and 200 people packed on the boat and Susino said most of them were from Eritrea.
He has declared Tuesday as a day of mourning.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta expressed his "profound pain" for the incident and referred back to a visit in July by Pope Francis to the island of Lampedusa, where many asylum-seekers arrive.
"I think back to the words of Pope Francis on Lampedusa on the need to fight the globalisation of indifference and feel the pain of these migrants as our own," Letta said.
"Italy will continue to respect the fundamental rights of migrants and fight against the criminals who take part in human trafficking," he said.
Father Giovanni La Manna, head of the Astalli refugee centre in Rome, said: "It is no longer possible to remain indifferent in front of the continuous repetition of avoidable tragedies."
"There should be humanitarian corridors to allow those fleeing conflicts and persecution to seek protection. This is the only way to avoid human traffickers putting lives in danger," he said.
Ansa said two suspected crew members from the boat have been arrested under an Italian law against people who facilitate illegal immigration.
Police and volunteers came to the aid of survivors as they reached the shore but many fled and police are now searching for them in the nearby area.
One migrant was hit by a car and taken to hospital in a serious condition. The driver did not stop to help him.
Six others have also been taken to local hospitals.
A swimmer had warned coastguards after seeing a small abandoned boat in poor condition near the shore.
The coastguards are continuing to search the maritime zone around the boat and divers are looking for any other victims.
In a similar incident in Catania in another part of Sicily in August, six young Egyptians drowned trying to reach the shore.
The victims had jumped from the trawler thinking they had arrived onshore when in fact they were some 15 metres (50 feet) away.
Since the start of the year over 22,000 immigrants have reached the southern coast of Italy, three times more than the total number last year.
Also on Monday, around 100 migrants landed in the southern region of Calabria and 107 Nigerians and Ghanaians were rescued and taken to the port of Trapani in another part of Sicily.