25 migrants fleeing Libya for Italy found dead on overcrowded boat
Hundreds of migrants fleeing unrest and conflict in Libya and across north Africa are believed to have died since the beginning of the year in desperate journeys across the Mediterranean.
Coastguard Captain Antonio Morana said the 50-ft boat was carrying 296 people, including 36 women and 21 children.
Some of them were stowed away in the hold, which also served as an engine room, according to reports. As the air became toxic from exhaust fumes, the migrants tried to get out but the boat was too packed for those standing above to move aside.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Laura Boldrini said: "From what they told us upon arrival, there was no air to breathe. Apparently they were so crammed there was nowhere to go."
At least some of the migrants may have died from asphyxiation, Ms Boldrini said.
She added that the desperate conditions apparently also led to tension and possible scuffles on board as people struggled to survive. She said an investigation currently under way in the nearby city of Agrigento was necessary to ascertain what happened.
Officials found the corpses - all young men - after boarding the boat just a few miles off Lampedusa, a small island closer to Africa than Italy. Lampedusa, which normally lives off tourism and fishing, has found itself on the frontline of a growing immigration crisis.
The bodies were put in green bags and lined up on Lampedusa's dock, before being moved to an immigrant shelter on the island. Post-mortems will be performed, according to Agrigento prosecutor Renato Di Natale, who will conduct the investigation. Survivors were taken ashore and also moved to the immigrant shelter. Ms Boldrini added: "The survivors are shocked."
She said smugglers pack too many people on unsafe boats, which "leads to a situation on board where your death is my life, where you risk it all. It's ferocious."
Capt Morana said all the victims recovered yesterday were believed to be of sub-Saharan origin. According to the survivors, the boat had set sail from Libya two days ago, he said.
Ms Boldrini said some 50 Somalis were believed to be on the boat, fleeing famine in the Horn of African region.
Some 20,000 people have arrived in Italy by boat in recent months following unrest in Libya and Tunisia.
Dozens of those boats are filled with sub-Saharan Africans who were working in Libya, then lost their jobs and feared for their lives as conflict erupted between Col Muammar Gaddafi and the rebels trying to push him from power.
In April, a boat believed to be carrying 300 migrants from Libya capsized, leaving 250 people presumed dead.
Libya has long been a popular point from which thousands of African migrants have attempted to cross into Europe.
A deal between Gaddafi and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government to send migrants back before they enter Italian waters succeeded in curbing the flow of migrants until the uprising against Gaddafi began this year.
Meanwhile, scuffles broke out in the southern city of Bari between immigrants held at a local centre and police, leaving scores injured.