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Children dead, 250 feared missing off Italian coast

Boat carrying migrants from Libya sinks, 51 survivors

06 April, 18:25
Children dead, 250 feared missing off Italian coast

(see related story on migrants) (ANSA) - Rome, April 6 - Children were among ''dozens'' of victims spotted at sea amid searches for as many as 250 missing people after a boat carrying refugees from conflict-hit Libya sank near the southern Italian island of Lampedusa early Wednesday.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said they estimate around 300 were aboard the boat after its staff spoke to the 51 survivors picked up in the Channel of Sicily, although some survivors put the figure as high as 370.

Initial reports said the boat that left Libya two days ago was carrying around 200 refugees, mostly of Eritrean and Somali origin.

It sank in rough seas at about 4am Wednesday around 40 miles from Lampedusa, although the incident took place in Malta's waters.

Difficult conditions have hampered rescue operations, but an Italian Coast Guard official said that ''it's too soon to consider all hope lost''.

Tax police helicopter pilots assisting the operations coordinated from Palermo said they saw ''little bodies of children'' among the dozens of victims floating in waves as high as three metres whipped up by winds of 30 knots.

''We hoped to see someone raise their arms, but we didn't,'' one of the pilots said. United Nations refugee agency UNHCR expressed ''grief and pain for the victims of this umpteenth human tragedy.

''The survivors spoke to the UNHCR's officials in Lampedusa with a look of terror,'' said UNHCR spokeswoman Laura Boldrini, who said that there were also people from conflict-hit Ivory Coast and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa on the boat.

''Among them is a father who lost his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter in the tragedy.

''This incident shows the need for greater coordination between the naval vessels present in the Mediterranean and NATO forces to save human lives''. The IOM said all the survivors were suffering shock and many were in a state of hypothermia. Five of them have been taken into hospital, including a woman who is eight-months pregnant. Her condition and that of her unborn child are not worrying, health officials said.

Up to 750 people have gone missing in the Channel of Sicily so far this year as migrants keep attempting the hazardous crossing on rickety boats following turmoil in North Africa.

Over 20,000 migrants have landed in Italy, many arriving at Lampedusa, which is nearer to Tunisia than Sicily.

Most of them have come from Tunisia and the Italian government reached an agreement with the Tunisian authorities on Tuesday for them to stiffen controls to stop the flow of migrants and repatriate new arrivals in exchange for aid and assistance.

Italy has been relocating migrants who had been packed on the tiny island of Lampedusa in miserable conditions to camps on Sicily and the mainland over the last week. On Wednesday Italy is set to approve plans to grant six-month visas to Tunisian migrants already on its shores, which would enable them to travel to other parts of Europe with many wanting to be reunited with family members living in other parts of the continent.

This move comes after France blocked Tunisian migrants at the French-Italian border, saying it had the right to stop undocumented migrants without breaking the Schengen Agreement that abolished border controls in much of mainland Europe.

But this probably would no longer be the case if Italy issued the migrants with temporary papers, although the French government is reportedly looking at whether the measure would comply with Schengen regulations.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has repeatedly complained about a lack of solidarity from Italy's European neighbours in dealing with the migrant crisis, which it has taken the brunt of because of its vicinity to North Africa, singling out France for criticism. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet in Rome on April 26 to discuss the migrant situation, government sources said.

photo: survivors on Lampedusa.