Calls for action after 700 drown off coast of Libya
UP to 700 people are feared drowned after a smuggler's boat overturned off the coast of Libya as rescuers approached.
It is believed to be the Mediterranean's deadliest-known migrant tragedy and intensified pressure on the European Union to finally meet demands for action.
The prospect of so many deaths dismayed politicians, aid agency officials and Pope Francis, all of whom demanded action to prevent more deaths.
Migrants have aimed for Europe's shores for many years, fleeing war, persecution and conflict in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. But the turmoil and warfare in Libya has made it easier for smugglers to take to the sea.
Rescuers were "checking who is alive and who is dead" among the bodies floating on the surface, said Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. He called it the "biggest human tragedy of the last few years".
The 20-metre vessel may have overturned because migrants rushed to one side of the craft late on Saturday night when they saw an approaching Portuguese-flagged container ship, the King Jacob, which the Italian Coast Guard had dispatched to help them.
The ship was sent to the area in Libyan waters by Italy's Coast Guard, and once the crew spotted the overloaded boat, it "immediately deployed rescue boats, gangway, nets and life rings", a spokesman for the ship's owner said.
Eighteen ships joined the rescue effort in the waters off Libya, but only 28 survivors and 24 bodies were pulled from the water by nightfall.
Italian authorities were "not in a position to confirm or verify" one survivor's estimate that 700 people were thrown into the water.
Resurgent right-wing political parties have made a rallying cry out of a rising tide of illegal migration.
So far this year, 35,000 asylum seekers and migrants have reached Europe and more than 900 are known to have died trying.
With Sunday's tragedy, demands for decisive action were going mainstream, as authorities from France, Spain, Germany and Britain joined calls for a unified response.