The French president has called for an emergency EU meeting in response to what he called the "worst catastrophe in recent years" in the Mediterranean: Over 600 migrants are feared dead after their boat capsized.
Speaking Sunday on French television, Francois Hollande called for a meeting of the bloc's foreign and interior ministers to deal with the mounting problem of African migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.
"If confirmed, this would be the worst catastrophe in recent years," said Hollande, hours after news surfaced that up to 700 migrants had drowned when their boat capsized in the Strait of Sicily just off the Libyan coast.
Hollande called for "more boats, more aerial surveillance and an intensified fight against trafficking," condemning those who organize the voyages as "terrorists" because "they know the boats are lousy … and put hundreds of people in danger."
After hearing of the tragedy, Pope Francis appealed to the international community to take "swift and decisive action" to avoid more migrant disasters.
"They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war. They were looking for a better life," he told tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square during his Sunday noon address.
"Faced with such a tragedy, I express my most heartfelt pain and promise to remember the victims and their families in prayer," he said.
Early on Sunday, Italy's ANSA news agency and the Times of Malta reported that 28 people had been rescued after a fishing boat capsized 60 km off the Libyan coast.
According to ANSA, a call for help was received by the Italian coastguard around midnight, saying the vessel had encountered "difficulty in navigation." ANSA said that when a Portuguese merchant ship that had heard the call for help converged on the fishing boat, all on board moved to one end to draw its attention. This is what apparently caused the boat to capsize.
Rescue operations, coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard, are still underway. Around 20 boats and three helicopters are said to be involved in the operation.
In 2014, Italy's Interior Ministry said over 3,500 migrants died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. This year alone, some 900 casualties have been recorded - not taking into account Saturday's capsizing.
If confirmed, the tragedy would be the biggest mass drowning to date of migrants attempting to reach the European Union over the Mediterranean.
glb/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP)