ROME — A boat crowded with migrants sank Monday in the Mediterranean just beyond Libya’s territorial waters, leaving at least 14 people dead, said the Italian navy, which helped rescue more than 200 survivors.
A tugboat that was traveling between oil platforms in the area spotted the vessel in difficulty, and was the first to come to the rescue when it overturned and then sank, said a navy spokesman, Capt. Marco Maccaroni.
“The tugboat estimated that there were about 200 on board when it saw it before it sank,” Maccaroni said. Seas were calm and it was unclear what caused the migrants’ boat to go down, Maccaroni said. But he added that it often happens that when migrants see another vessel nearby, “they all move to one side, causing their boat to tip over.”
By nightfall, 206 people had been rescued, the navy official said. He said it wasn’t clear if any people were missing because the exact number of migrants who set out on the boat wasn’t known.
Nationalities of the survivors and dead hadn’t yet been determined.
The sinking occurred some 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa and about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of the Libyan coast, Italian authorities said. An Italian frigate and a patrol boat rushed to the scene along with two Italian coast guard boats and a boat from the Italian border police fleet. Several cargo vessels in the vicinity also pitched in the rescue efforts.
Medical personnel aboard the navy boats were giving assistance to the survivors.
The incident is the latest in a string of tragedies in the Mediterranean sea involving migrants who embark on perilous journeys in overloaded or unseaworthy boats.
At least 232 people perished in the fiery capsizing of a smuggler’s trawler near Lampedusa last fall. Only 155 people survived that capsizing.
In the past week alone, more than 4,000 migrants have reached Italy’s shores, arriving in smugglers’ boats. Many of the boats set out from Libya’s loosely patrolled coast with migrants who are fleeing wars or hardship in Syria, Eritrea and elsewhere.
Italy says it can no longer afford the costs of rescuing, feeding and sheltering the steady stream of arrivals and wants the rest of the European Union to do more. Northern neighbors like Germany retort that they already take in far more asylum seekers than Italy does.
The European Union’s home affairs commissioner, Cecilia Malmstroem, quickly expressed shock over the “appalling loss of life” in Monday’s tragedy and offered thanks to Italian authorities for their rescue efforts. She called on member states to “now show concrete solidarity in order to reduce the risk of such tragedies from happening again.”
She pushed for implementation of an EU strategy to resettle “refugees directly from the camps outside the EU” as well as “opening new legal channels to come legally.”
“By bringing these people safely to the EU, we could prevent them from falling in the hands of traffickers and smugglers,” Malmstroem said.
In Libya Monday, the country’s naval force rescued 450 migrants, including Eritreans, Syrians and Palestinians, off its coastline, officials said. On Sunday, Libyan officials said they found the bodies of 24 migrants after the bottom of the victims’ small boat collapsed.
Just two days earlier Libya’s interior minister threatened that his country would aid migrants in reaching Europe if the EU didn’t send more money to help it deal with migrants using Libya as a transit point.
Esam Mohammed in Tripoli, Libya, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.
Follow Frances D’Emilio on Twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio