Italian news agenies report the incident happened on Monday about 100 nautical miles (185 kilometers) away from the country's southern outpost of Lampedusa and about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Libya.
Early reports about the numbers on board - and the numbers of victims - are conflicting. Local media indicated the boat was carrying about 400 passengers and about half of them were rescued. A spokesperson from Italy's navy estimated the boat to be carrying about 200 people. He said vessels from a task force called Mare Nostrum, which was set up in the wake of hundreds of migrant drownings last year, were on their way to the scene. Cargo ships were redirected to the area in the early stages of the rescue attempts.
More than 4,000 migrants in smugglers' boats have reached Italy in the past week alone. Many depart from Libya, where the coast is not tightly patrolled. On Sunday, at least 36 migrants were killed when another boat sank close to Libya's eastern coast.
It's estimated that about 20,000 migrants have died over the past 20 years in the perilous journey to reach Europe by sea. Many were hoping to build a better life in the EU and escape political instability, hardship and violence in their homelands, including Eritrea, Somalia and Syria.
Italy has boosted its naval patrols after several maritime tragedies including last October's shipwreck off Lampedusa, in which more than 360 migrants were killed.
se/msh (AFP, dpa, Reuters, AP)