Rome - Over 200 migrants attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean were feared to have drowned on Wednesday after their overcrowded fishing boat capsized off Libya.
The boat, believed to have been carrying over 600 migrants including women and children, ran into difficulty about 15 nautical miles off Libya and sent out a distress call, which was picked up by the coastguard in Sicily.
Coastguard spokesperson Filippo Marini said around 400 people had been rescued from the water while 25 bodies had been recovered.
Irish patrol vessel LE Niamh and a ship deployed by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) were among the first to be dispatched.
According to the Irish authorities, 367 people, including 12 women and 13 children, had been rescued.
Six other people, including a baby no more than a year old and a survivor with a broken leg, were taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa, Federico Fossi, spokesperson in Italy for the UN refugee agency, told AFP.
While the sea was very calm, "the boat overturned and sank quickly because it was made of metal", Fossi added.
The agency's chief spokesperson Melissa Fleming said on Twitter that "100 [migrants] were in the hull" of the fishing vessel when it capsized.
Seven ships, several helicopters and a drone were helping search for survivors.
More than 2 000 people have already died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday.
Wednesday's disaster could be the worst since 800 migrants were feared drowned off Libya in April.
Working flat out
Ireland's Defence Minister Simon Coveney confirmed that the Niamh was diverted to the scene at 07:00 and warned "the loss of life is likely to be significant".
"The crew of the Niamh are working flat out with their counterparts to rescue as many as possible," he said in a statement.
Nawal Soufi, an Arabic-speaking Italian based in Sicily who is often contacted by migrants in distress, told AFP she had received a call earlier on Wednesday about a boat in trouble with more than 600 people on board.
She said she was called by someone onboard who said the fishing boat, carrying men, women and children, was in trouble because its engine room was flooded.
Marini confirmed it was probably the same boat.
The latest shipwreck was set to shift the focus in the immigration debate back to the struggles of those fleeing war zones, after weeks of complaints from France and Britain over the disruption caused by asylum seekers at the Channel Tunnel.
Also on Wednesday, 94 people on board a rubber boat were rescued in a separate operation, coastguards told AFP.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker told AFP Wednesday that EU governments have a duty to help the flood of migrants arriving in Europe and not cave in to "populist" demands to turn them back.
He said he was disappointed that EU ministers had failed late last month to agree on how to distribute a total of 40 000 mostly Syrian and Eritrean migrants from overstretched Italy and Greece.
They agreed to start relocating a little over 32 000 of the arrivals among the EU's 28 members in October, falling around 8 000 short of the target agreed by EU leaders at a summit in June.
"If we don't get there on a voluntary basis, we will have to reconsider the Commission's proposals," the former premier of Luxembourg said.
Nearly all of the people crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, often in rickety boats and at the mercy of human traffickers, have landed either in Italy (97 000) or Greece (90 500), according to the IOM.
The so-called central Mediterranean route proved by far the deadliest, with just over 1,930 people dying as they tried to cross from Libya to Italy, while only about 60 died trying to reach Greece.
The eastern route is shorter and IOM said that traffickers taking people to Italy tended to use more unseaworthy vessels.