Europe hit with news of more sinking boats

20 reported dead by caller from one of three vessels in Mediterranean Sea

GENEVA - The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) yesterday said it had received a distress call from a sinking boat in the Mediterranean Sea carrying more than 300 people, with at least 20 reported dead.

The news came as European Union ministers were due to meet to urgently discuss Sunday's migrant tragedy, when about 700 people were feared killed after a boat capsized off Libya.

IOM spokesman Joel Millman yesterday said the group had received a call for help from one of three boats floating near one another in international waters.

"The caller said there are over 300 people on his boat and it is already sinking, (and) he has already reported fatalities, 20 at least," he wrote in an e-mail.

Although the IOM said Italian and Maltese navy boats were tied up searching for the victims of Sunday's disaster, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi said later in the day that Italy and Malta were working to rescue two boats in distress.

He said one of the boats in distress has about 100 to 150 people on board, while the other has around 300. There was no mention of the third boat.

The latest news of migrant boats in distress follows a week in which two shipwrecks have left around 450 people dead, sparking calls for immediate action.

At a press conference with his Maltese counterpart Joseph Muscat yesterday, Mr Renzi said Italy was studying the possibility of mounting "targeted interventions" against Libya-based people smugglers behind a huge surge in the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

"The hypothesis of military intervention (to stabilise Libya) is not on the table... but what is possible are targeted interventions to destroy a criminal racket."

Mr Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told reporters yesterday that she was appalled by Sunday's shipwreck disaster and wants Europe to find answers.

The victims had "started out - desperate, perhaps also hopeful - for Europe, and the fact that they now have found only death on the way - that is a tragedy", he said.

"A continent which feels committed to humanity must look for answers even when there are no easy answers," he quoted Dr Merkel as saying. He added that EU ministers must urgently ask what can be done and examine how "the complicated internal political situation in Libya leaves people smugglers a completely free path for their criminal business".

Dr Merkel had called Mr Renzi on Sunday and the two agreed that Europe "is to now act in this direction", he said.

Ahead of yesterday's EU meeting, EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini warned that the bloc had "no more excuses" not to act to halt the flood of migrants. "We need immediate action from the EU and the member states."

The former Italian foreign minister has been pushing the EU to be more pro-active on Libya.

But the issue of who handles these migrants is hugely sensitive, with Italy complaining that its EU partners are not doing enough.

Italy had scaled back its search-and-rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, after its European partners refused to help meet its operating costs of €9 million (S$13 million) a month, amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally encouraging migrants to try the crossing. Mare Nostrum was replaced by a much smaller EU-run operation called Triton.

The recent flood of migrants and the growing loss of life has put that decision back in focus, but some EU member states, especially those not directly affected, have been reluctant to do more.

Sunday's disaster could change that. If the worst fears about the tragedy are confirmed, it would take the death toll since the start of this year to more than 1,600.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS