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Migrants pictured waiting for a ferry in Lampedusa this morning. This boat is not the boat that sank. Antonello Nusca/AP/Press Association Images via PA Images

Boat carrying migrants sinks near Italian island of Lampedusa

200 people were on board the ship – the Italian Coast Guard says it has rescued 48 people but many are feared dead.

ITALIAN COAST GUARD officials are trying to rescue migrants lost at sea after their boat capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island close to North Africa. Many are feared dead.

The Coast Guard has saved 48 out of 200 believed to be aboard the boat, Pietro Carosia of the Italian Coast Guard told the Associated Press, adding that helicopters also have spotted corpses in the sea.

The ANSA news agency said about 20 bodies have been spotted but that the rescue operation was hampered by strong winds and rough waters.

The incident occurred overnight, but at this point it is not clear what happened to the boat, which had set sail from the Libyan coast.

However the BBC reports that the Italian Coast Guard responded to a distress call from the boat at about 4am local time (2am GMT) this morning. Three Coast Guard vessels, two planes and a helicopter are involved in the search.

The survivors were offered blankets, warm beverages and food as they arrived ashore this morning. Many are suffering from hypothermia and some were taken away by ambulance.

Thousands of people — mostly Tunisians — have arrived from North Africa on Italy’s shores after fleeing the turmoil that has engulfed the region.

Because of this, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi held talks with Tunisian ministers about the situation on Monday, and also visited Lampedusa where he pledged to tackle the influx of migrants.

On Tuesday, Tunisia agreed to the repatriation of new arrivals and Rome supplying equipment and other assistance to crack down on smuggling rings.

Italy also agreed to issue six-month residency papers to 20,000 illegal immigrants.

Many migrants have been moved from Lampedusa to the mainland because the number of migrants on the island outnumbered locals and conditions were creating a health risk.

For more information read this story on the BBC News website>

- additional reporting by AP