At least 94 dead after boat sinks off coast of Lampedusa

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Rome — At least 94 people, including a pregnant woman and two children, died when a boat capsized and caught fire off the island of Lampedusa, the Italian coast guard told CNN on Thursday.

The coast guard has been able to save at least 151 people, and the rescue operation is ongoing.

The boat is thought to have been carrying up to 500 people. Those aboard include Eritreans, Somalis and Ghanaians, the coast guard said, and the boat is thought to have launched from Libya’s coast.

Lampedusa, the closest Italian island to Africa, has become a destination for tens of thousands of refugees seeking to enter European Union countries.

The head of the U.N. refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, praised the efforts of the Italian coast guard but said he was “dismayed at the rising global phenomenon of migrants and people fleeing conflict or persecution and perishing at sea.”

Another 13 men drowned off Italy’s southern coast Monday when they attempted to swim ashore, the U.N agency said in a statement.

It is working with countries in the region to find “effective alternatives” so people don’t risk their lives trying to make perilous journeys by sea, it said.

Pope’s prayers

Lampedusa, a tiny island off the coast of Sicily, was in the news this summer when the pope went there to pray for refugees and migrants lost at sea.

During his visit there in July, Pope Francis criticized what he called “global indifference” to the island’s refugee crisis.

“We pray to God for the victims of the tragic shipwreck in Lampedusa,” Francis said Thursday on the Italian version of his Twitter account.

Just under 115 kilometers (70 miles) from Tunisia, the island has been the first point of entry to Europe for more than 200,000 refugees and irregular migrants who have passed through the island since 1999.

But boats carrying migrants often are in peril at sea.

In recent years, the Italian Coast Guard says it has been involved in the rescue of more than 30,000 refugees around the island.

A risky journey

According to a briefing published by the U.N. refugee agency in July, the peak crossing period for migrants and asylum-seekers runs from May to September.

The agency estimates that 8,400 migrants and asylum-seekers landed on the coasts of Italy and Malta in the first six months of this year, all but 600 of them in Italy.

Most departed from North Africa, principally Libya, for the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, one of the busiest seaways in the world.

The migrants and asylum seekers chiefly come from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Somalia and Eritrea, it said. Others originate from Syria, Egypt or Pakistan, and smaller numbers from Gambia, Mali and Afghanistan.

The U.N. refugee agency recorded some 40 deaths in the first six months of 2013, a figure based on interviews with survivors of the crossing.

For 2012 as a whole, some 15,000 migrants and asylum-seekers reached Italy and Malta — and almost 500 people were reported dead or missing at sea, it said.

The U.N. agency credits the efforts of the Italian coast guard and Maltese armed forces for a reduction in migrant deaths in the first half of 2013 compared with the previous year.