The UN has expressed shock at the incident.
At least 94 people died and up to 250 were missing after a boat packed with African migrants caught fire and sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa on Thursday.
The disaster occurred when the boat’s motor stopped working and the vessel began to take on water, Italian Interior Minister, Angelino Alfano, said.
People on board burned a sheet to attract the attention of rescuers, starting a fire on board.
“Once the fire started, there was a concern about the boat sinking and everyone moved to one side, causing the boat to go down,” he told a news conference.
The 20-metre vessel sank no more than 1 km from shore.
Bodies fished from the water were laid out along the quay side as the death toll rose in what looked like one of the worst disasters to hit the perilous route for migrants seeking to reach Europe from Africa.
“It’s horrific, like a cemetery, they are still bringing them out,” Lampedusa Mayor, Giusi Nicolini, told newsmen.
Mr. Alfano said three children and two pregnant women were among the victims.
The disaster happened four days after 13 migrants drowned off eastern Sicily, and Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, said action was needed by the EU to stem “a succession of massacres of innocent people”.
Last year, almost 500 people were reported dead or missing on the crossing from Tunisia to Italy, the UN Refugee Office (UNHCR) says.
Syrians fleeing civil war have added to the numbers.
A fishing boat raised the alarm at around 7.20 a.m. and began pulling people out of the water before coast guard vessels arrived at the scene.
The coast guard said 151 people had been rescued.
Between 450 and 500 people, most either Eritreans or Somalis, appeared to have been on board the boat, which had come from Misrata in Libya, Mr. Alfano said.
“If they had been able to use a telephone, they could have been saved,” he said.
Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Guterres, has expressed shock over the death.
This is contained in a statement he issued on the disaster in New York on Thursday.
Mr. Guterres commended the swift action taken by the Italian Coast Guard to save lives, and decried the rising global phenomenon of migrants and people fleeing conflict or persecution and perishing at sea.
He said of the estimated 500 passengers on the boat believed to be Eritreans only 147 had been rescued so far.
Media reports suggested that there are still some 200 passengers that are unaccounted for.
The UNHCR said it was actively engaging countries in the region to provide alternatives for people resorting to taking the dangerous journeys so they do not have to risk their lives.
“Today’s incident is the second boat disaster this week off Italy’s coast.
“Thirteen men drowned off the Southern coast of Italy on Monday when they attempted to swim ashore from a foundering vessel,’’ the statement said.
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