VALLETTA - About 200 shocked survivors were plucked from the sea on Saturday after their overloaded boat sank, claiming more than 30 lives in the latest deadly migrant tragedy to hit the Mediterranean.
Their boat went down off Malta on Friday near the Italian island of Lampedusa, packed with 230 to 250 men, women and children, the Maltese navy said.
As the toll rose in the latest refugee disaster, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat warned that the Mediterranean was in danger of becoming a "cemetery" for migrants desperate to reach European shores.
"The latest figure we have is 31" dead, a Maltese government spokesman told AFP on Saturday. The Italian navy earlier gave the figure of 34 dead.
Exhausted after a 10-hour journey from the wreck site, about 143 survivors arrived in Valetta on Saturday morning aboard a Maltese naval vessel. They were helped onto buses to be driven to shelters.
Some gave their nationality as Syrian and others said they were Palestinian, according to a Maltese government source.
"They speak very little English but some told me they were Syrian," an emergency worker told AFP.
Fifty-six more survivors were being escorted to Porto Empedocle in Sicily on an Italian naval vessel. Another nine were airlifted to Lampedusa, including a couple with a nine-month-old baby whose three-year-old brother drowned, emergency services said.
The sinking came just over a week after a similar tragedy killed more than 300 Africans in the deadliest refugee disaster to date in the region, prompting the European Union to call for sea patrols to cope with the flood of migrants knocking on its doors.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta called the latest tragedy "a new and dramatic confirmation of the state of emergency".
"We are just building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea," his Maltese counterpart, Muscat, warned at a press conference on Friday, calling for more help from the rest of Europe.
Both the Maltese and Italian navies dispatched rescue ships and helicopters to the area, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Lampedusa and 110 kilometres from Malta.
European Union Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstroem said she was following the rescue operations "with sadness and anxiety" and called for expanded search and rescue operations.
EU asylum policy criticised as too restrictive
Another two migrant boats were rescued in difficulty off Lampedusa at the weekend, one carrying 87 people and the other 183, including 49 children, Italian media reported.
And at least 12 migrants drowned and 116 were rescued on Friday when their boat capsized off Egypt's Mediterranean coast near Alexandria, a security official said.
The European Commission has been urging EU states to pledge planes, ships and funds for EU border guard service Frontex, whose budget has been cut.
The migrants in Friday's disaster alerted the authorities using a satellite phone when their boat ran into difficulty in Maltese waters.
Bound for Lampedusa, the boat capsized after those aboard attempted to catch the attention of a military aircraft by gathering at one end of the vessel, the Maltese navy said.
The new rescue effort came as Italian divers found 20 more bodies from last week's refugee shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, raising the death toll in that tragedy to 359. Only 155 survivors were rescued out of an estimated 545 people, most of them Eritreans and Somalis.
The disaster has cast a spotlight on the EU's asylum policy, which has been criticised as overly restrictive and forcing refugees to resort to desperate measures to reach Europe.
Italy has appealed to EU states for help in coping with the thousands washing up on its shores every month, and wants migration to be put on the agenda of summit talks in Brussels at month's end.
French European Affairs Minister Thierry Repentin said France could not "continue to allow men and women to perish in the sea without a collective response (and) leave Italy to handle the issue on its own, at the front line."
He said Paris would offer financial as well as technical assistance to deal with the tragedies.
Immigration charities estimate that between 17,000 and 20,000 migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe over the past 20 years, often crossing on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies.
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