ROME – A boat carrying an estimated 200 migrants capsized Friday off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where a shipwreck last week left at least 339 dead. Rescue crews reported seeing bodies in the water but the coast guard said most of the passengers had been rescued.
Helicopters ferried the injured to Lampedusa, while a half-dozen Italian and Maltese ships responded at the scene. The capsizing occurred some 65 miles southeast of Lampedusa, but in waters where Malta has search and rescue responsibilities.
The coast guard received a satellite phone call from the boat that was in distress on Friday and was able to locate it based on the satellite coordinates, said coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla. A Maltese aircraft was sent up and reported that the boat had capsized and that "numerous" people were in the water. The aircraft dropped a life raft, and a patrol boat soon arrived at the scene, according to a statement from the Maltese armed forces.
Di Milla said "a good number" of the estimated 200 people had been rescued, and Maltese police said an unspecified number would be taken to Malta. But rescue crews also reported seeing corpses in the water, a Maltese government spokesman said.
The capsizing occurred a week after a migrant ship from Libya capsized and sank with some 500 people on board near and island off Lampedusa's coast. Only 155 survived. Recovery efforts continued Friday, bringing the toll up to 339, including a newborn with its umbilical cord still attached, Di Milla said.
The deaths from the Oct. 3 wreck prompted calls for the European Union to do more to better patrol the southern Mediterranean and prevent such tragedies.
Lampedusa, a tiny speck of an island closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, is the destination of choice of smugglers ferrying migrants from Libya or Tunisia to Europe. They usually charge more than 1,000 euro ($1,355) a head and cram the migrants onto boats that routinely run into trouble and require rescue.
Once in Italy, the migrants are screened for asylum and often sent back home if they don't qualify. During the 1990s and early 2000s, many of the arrivals were considered "economic migrants." But many of the latest arrivals are fleeing persecution and conflict in places such as Syria and Egypt, and qualify for refugee status, U.N. officials say.
Many eventually end up in northern Europe's larger and more organized immigrant communities.
During a visit to Lampedusa this week, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso promised Italy some 30 million euro in EU funds to better care for newly arrived migrants, and Italian officials pledged to put the issue on the agenda of an upcoming European Union summit and on the EU agenda next year, when Italy and Greece hold the EU presidencies.
Some 30,100 migrants arrived in Italy and Malta in the first nine months of 2013, compared with 15,000 in all of 2012, according to the U.N. refugee agency.