Rescuers searched on Friday for around 50 migrants feared drowned after their boat sank off the coast of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa overnight, Italian rescue services said.
The Italian Coastguard and nearby NATO ships rescued 56 people from the sea after receiving a distress call from the sinking boat, which survivors said had been carrying 136 people, including 10 women and six children.
Coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini said one body had been found and that the search would continue “as long as there is hope of finding survivors.”
Those rescued, including one woman, “are in good health, although they are suffering from hypothermia,” Marini said.
Some were plucked from the waters, while others swam ashore.
The survivors, apparently all Tunisians, were taken to a nearby reception center.
A passenger on the boat gave the alarm in a satellite phone call late on Thursday, saying they were sinking about 22km off Lampedusa, the Italian island closest to the coast of north Africa.
Coastguard and police vessels as well as NATO helicopters and ships from Italy, Germany and Turkey joined the search for survivors.
NATO’s southern command in Naples joined the operation after a request by Italian authorities, NATO said in a statement from Brussels.
So far however there has been no sign of the wrecked boat.
Some Italian media reports have speculated that it might have quickly sank — or simply have been towed back to Tunisia by a “mother boat,” which could have taken the remaining migrants with it.
Prosecutors in Agrigento in southern Sicily have opened an inquiry into whether there were people traffickers on board and, if so, whether these were among the survivors.
However, UN refugee agency spokeswoman Laura Boldrini said: “The idea of people smugglers is by now obsolete. Today it is the migrants themselves who take turns in sailing the boat. They are often people with no maritime experience.”
Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini said she was “deeply saddened for the victims of the tragedy” and warned against “getting used to these tragedies.”
Each year, thousands of illegal migrants, mostly from Africa, cross the Mediterranean Sea in overcrowded and makeshift boats to land in Lampedusa seeking to enter Europe.
In an interview cited on ANSA news agency, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti warned against taking a racist approach to migrants who make it to Italy’s shores, saying that “we have to bear in mind that [migration] does not bring just bad things” and calling for “a common policy” on a European level.