MILAN (AP) — Rescue crews searched Monday for survivors and bodies from what could be the Mediterranean’s deadliest migrant tragedy ever as hundreds more migrants took to the sea undeterred and EU foreign ministers gathered for an emergency meeting to address the crisis.
If reports of at least 700 and as many as 900 dead are confirmed, the weekend shipwreck near the Libyan coast would bring to well over 1,000 the number of migrants who died or went missing during the perilous Mediterranean crossing in the last week. More than 400 are feared dead in another sinking. More than 10,000 others were rescued.
“This tragedy didn’t have to happen,” Sarah Tyler, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, said of Sunday’s incident. “That is almost as many as died in the Titanic, and 31 times the number who died when the Costa Concordia sank.”
Libya is a transit point for migrants fleeing conflict, repression and poverty in countries such as Eritrea, Niger, Syria, Iraq and Somalia, with increased instability there and improving weather prompting more people to attempt the dangerous crossing.
One survivor of the weekend sinking, identified as a 32-year-old Bangladeshi, has put the number of people on board the smugglers’ boat at as many as 950. Authorities previously had quoted him as saying 700 migrants were on board.
The survivor was flown by helicopter to Catania, in Sicily, where he was interviewed by prosecutors. He was being treated in a hospital.
“He is pretty well now and he is reporting that there were really many, many persons including children on the boat. So it’s confirming the terrible news,” said Carlotta Sami, a U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman.
The survivor said some 300 migrants were locked in a hold by the smugglers, and would have been trapped inside when the boat sank, according to Prosecutor Giovanni Salvi, who is conducting the investigation.
Both Salvi and international agencies stressed that the information provided to prosecutors still needs to be confirmed.
A new tragedy unfolded in Greece, meanwhile, where search and rescue operations were underway Monday after a wooden boat carrying dozens of migrants who departed Turkey ran aground off the eastern Aegean island of Rhodes. At least three people, including a child, were dead, while 93 were rescued. It was unclear how many people were on board and could be missing.
Also Monday, the International Organization for Migration said its Rome office had received a distress call from international waters in the Mediterranean about three boats in need of help. The group says the caller reported 300 people on his sinking boat, with about 20 fatalities. No details were available about the other boats or their location.
Earlier in the day, the Italian coast guard ship Gregoretti brought the bodies of 24 victims from the weekend shipwreck to Malta, where they will be buried.
All were adult men, according to the Maltese Army. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that survivors spoke of “haunting experiences.”
The Maltese Army said that items recovered from the site of the tragedy included a diary, which has been passed on to Italian authorities for investigation.
Italian coast guard Capt. Gian Luigi Bove told reporters in Malta his vessel was about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away from the latest shipwreck when the distress call came in early Sunday.
Bove said the Italian vessel arrived at the shipwreck at around 2 a.m. Sunday and found two survivors along with bodies floating in the sea. The survivors were taken on board. He said there was no sign of the smuggler’s boat, an indication that it may have already sunk.
Bove said the survivors were from sub-Saharan Africa and language issues were impeding the investigation.
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi told private Italian radio RTL he would ask his EU counterparts on Monday to confront instability in Libya more decisively than in the past, but he ruled out ground troops.
“At this moment to intervene with international forces on the ground is a risk that is absolutely excessive,” Renzi said. “We cannot think about sending tens of thousands of men without a strategy, on a wave of emotion.”
Renzi said he would ask his European counterparts to participate in a joint operation targeting smugglers. He said that Italy has so far arrested nearly 1,000, but needs help.
Renzi met in Washington last week with President Barack Obama, who also pledged to help on Libya.
EU foreign ministers are meeting in Luxembourg Monday focusing on the migration crisis and the role of the conflict in Libya fueling the influx. The EU’s top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has canceled a trip to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla to attend.
Fighting in Libya has escalated to its worst levels since the 2011 civil war that ended with the overthrow and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Rebel groups that fought against him kept their weapons and militias mushroomed in number. The country now has rival governments — the internationally recognized one in the eastern city of Tobruk, and an Islamist-backed one in the capital, Tripoli. The two sides have been negotiating in Morocco to end the fighting.
Malta and Italy are closest to the Libyan coast, and have received the brunt of a migrant tide that carried 219,000 people from Africa to Europe last year. Some 3,500 died or went missing along the way, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement Sunday.
Mired in economic crisis and a facing a surging anti-foreigner electorate in many nations, there is little appetite across European governments to take in more poor migrants, however desperate their plight.
Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said sending more ships to rescue migrants could actually make the problem worse.
“If we make the work of traffickers easier and accept refugees that have gone overboard, this will make it an even better business for them,” he said on Czech television. “We need to find a way to prevent people from setting out on such ships.”