300 migrants feared lost in Mediterranean refugee tragedy
UP to 300 people are now unaccounted for after boats carrying migrants sank in the Mediterranean, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
The director of UNHCR Europe director Vincent Cochetel said the incident was a "tragedy on an enormous scale".
Nine survivors brought to the island of Lampedusa by the Italian coast guard are believed to be from West Africa.
Initial reports suggested that at least 29 migrants had died after their dinghy overturned.
The UNHCR said that dinghy was one of four that left Libya at the weekend.
Those rescued yesterday had spent days drifting without food or water in two of the other dinghies - with each said to be carrying more than 100 people.
The survivors said the fourth dinghy disappeared at sea.
Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR, said the victims had been "swallowed up by the waves," with the youngest a child of 12.
"This is a tragedy on an enormous scale and a stark reminder that more lives could be lost if those seeking safety are left at the mercy of the sea," Mr Cochetel said in a statement.
The UN said the latest incident should be a message to the European Union that the current search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean was inadequate.
"Europe cannot afford to do too little too late," Mr Cochetel added.
In November, Italy ended an operation known as Mare Nostrum, which was launched in October 2013 in response to a tragedy off Lampedusa in which 366 people died.
The year-long operation was aimed at rescuing seaborne migrants, with Italian vessels looking for ships carrying migrants that may have run into trouble off the Libyan coast.
Late last year, the UNHCR warned that Italy's decision to end its operation in the Mediterranean would almost certainly lead to more deaths.
But other European countries said a rescue service for migrants could encourage them and so the operation was scaled down.
The EU now runs a border control operation, called Triton, which only operates close to Europe's coast and with fewer ships. The UNHCR says almost 3,500 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in 2014, making it the world's most dangerous sea crossing for migrants.
A convoy of hearses arrived at the Lampedusa harbour to collect the bodies of the victims.
At least a quarter of those attempting the crossing are thought to be refugees from Syria.
(© Daily Telegraph London)