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Ship capsizes off Italy; 114 African migrants die

Bodies of drowned migrants are lined up in the port of Lampedusa Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. Tens of people died when a ship carrying African migrants toward Italy caught fire and sank off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, spilling hundreds of passengers into the sea, officials said Thursday. Many migrants have been rescued, but the boat is believed to have been carrying as many as 500 people. It is one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in recent times and the second one this week off Italy: On Monday, 13 men drowned while trying to reach southern Sicily when their ship ran aground just a few meters (yards) from shore at Scicli. (AP Photo/Nino Randazzo, Health Care Service, HO)

Bodies of drowned migrants are lined up in the port of Lampedusa Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. Tens of people died when a ship carrying African migrants toward Italy caught fire and sank off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, spilling hundreds of passengers into the sea, officials said Thursday. Many migrants have been rescued, but the boat is believed to have been carrying as many as 500 people. It is one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in recent times and the second one this week off Italy: On Monday, 13 men drowned while trying to reach southern Sicily when their ship ran aground just a few meters (yards) from shore at Scicli. (AP Photo/Nino Randazzo, Health Care Service, HO)

The rickety fishing boat was the third of the night to head toward the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, overloaded with African migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Most never reached shore.

After the boat started taking on water, someone on board set a fire to get the attention of passing ships. The flames spread and panicked passengers surged to one side to avoid the fire. The vessel capsized, and hundreds of men, women and children who didn’t know how to swim were flung into the Mediterranean Sea.

At least 114 people died and some 200 were still unaccounted for late yesterday, Italian officials said.

“We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances,” said Pietro Bartolo, chief of Lampedusa health services.

It was one of the deadliest accidents in the dangerous crossing thousands make each year, seeking a new life in the prosperous European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head for the journey aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests.

Lampedusa, 70 miles off Tunisia and closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, has been at the center of wave after wave of illegal immigration.

“It’s an immense tragedy,” Mayor Giusi Nicolini said.

Between 450 and 500 people were believed to be on board the boat, which set sail from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and capsized about a half-mile from Lampedusa; health commissioner Antonio Candela said only 159 were rescued.

Bartolo initially put the death toll at 94 but said it would certainly rise as search operations continued. Italian coast guard divers later reported seeing 20 more bodies on the ocean floor.

The 66-foot boat was carrying migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, Italian coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla told the Associated Press.

Usually, smugglers have mobile or satellite phones to call for help when they near shore or run into trouble. Instead, someone on the boat set fire to a piece of material to attract the attention of passing ships, he said.

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