ROME – Italian and NATO rescue crews searched the waters off a small Mediterranean island Friday for survivors of an apparently sunken migrant boat after some of the 56 rescued passengers reported that dozens more were missing. One body was recovered.
The survivors, all of them believed to be Tunisian, included a pregnant woman, said coast guard spokesman Cmdr. Filippo Marini.
They were rescued from the sea as well as on the uninhabited islet of Lampione west of Italy's larger Lampedusa island, the frequent destination of smugglers' boats leaving north Africa.
Marini said by telephone that Italian and NATO vessels and aircraft were searching the area around Lampedusa for survivors since passengers continued to report that more than 100 people had been on board. Three NATO ships with their helicopters were operating in the area and offered their assistance, plucking two survivors from the water and locating several more on Lampione who were subsequently rescued, a NATO statement said.
Port officials told Italian state radio Friday that initial SOS reports frequently cite inflated passenger numbers, but that the search was nevertheless continuing.
Marini said there was no trace of the boat, which according to the initial reports was an old, 10-meter (33-foot) wooden vessel.
Tens of thousands of clandestine migrants, many aboard smugglers' boats, head to Italian shores each year. Lampedusa is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland.
Those without jobs awaiting them or who are ineligible for asylum are sent back to their homelands.
Amnesty International reported that in 2011 alone, at least 1,500 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe, though other groups say the number is far higher. The shipwreck sparked renewed calls from refugee rights groups for European governments to grant more safe and official ways for people fleeing their homelands to reach the continent.