The Italian coast guard has recovered 59 bodies after a migrant boat broke apart in rough seas on Sunday off the southern coast of Italy’s mainland, RAI state radio reported.
Rescuers said so far there were some 80 survivors.
Quoting unidentified port authorities near the coastal town of Crotone, in Calabria, the toe of the Italian peninsula, RAI said the boat was carrying 120 migrants when it ran into trouble at dawn in the Ionian sea.
By mid-morning, about 40 survivors had been found, said Luca Cari, a spokesman for firefighters who were involved in rescue efforts.
State TV said some 27 of the survivors made it to shore, apparently on their own.
Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni said that the migrants were crowded into a 20-metre (66ft) boat in “adverse weather conditions”.
In a statement released by her office, she expressed “her deep sorrow for the many human lives torn away by human traffickers”.
“It’s inhumane to exchange the live of men, women and children for the ‘price’ of a ticket paid by them in the false prospect for a safe voyage,” said Ms Meloni.
She vowed to use her leadership to press for crackdowns on departures arranged by human smugglers and to press fellow European Union leaders to help Italy in her quest.
A chunk of the boat, along with piles of splintered wood, littered the beach at Steccato di Cutro, part of Calabria’s coastline along the Ionian sea.
Some of the survivors tried to keep warm, wrapped in what appeared to be colourful blankets or sheets.
A helicopter and motorboats were deployed in search efforts, including vessels from state firefighters, border police and the coast guard.
A Coast Guard motorboat rescued two men suffering from hypothermia and recovered the body of a boy in the rough seas, it said in a statement.
Firefighter boats, including rescue divers, recovered 28 bodies, including three pulled by a strong current far away from the wreckage.
The Italian news agency AGI said a baby was among the bodies recovered.
Pope Francis told the faithful in St Peter’s Square: “I pray for each of them, for the missing and the other migrants who survived.”
He added he was also praying for the rescuers “and for those who give welcome” to the migrants.
It was not clear where the boat had set out from, but migrant vessels arriving in Calabria usually depart from Turkish or Egyptian shores.
Another sea route employed by traffickers, considered among the deadliest for migration, crosses the central Mediterranean from Libya’s coast, where migrants often endure brutal detention conditions for months, before they can board rubber dinghies or wooden fishing boats, toward Italian shores.
Most of the migrants departing from Libya are fleeing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa or in Bangladesh and Pakistan.