Stampede for rescue sent 700 to their deaths
The light on the horizon was supposed to signal salvation.
A Portuguese cargo ship, on its way to Libya, had been dispatched to rescue a boat full of migrants, floundering 160km south of Lampedusa. In the dark, it changed course to assist the hundreds on board.
But the well-intentioned rescue did not go as planned.
On seeing the light, just before midnight on Saturday, the migrants surged to one side of the 66ft fishing vessel. Unbalanced, it capsized. And, in what is thought to be the worst migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean, up to 700 lives were lost.
Some reports put the toll even higher. Italy's Ansa news agency quoted one survivor as saying there were 950 on board the boat when it sank.
"They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water," said Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta - a country that has been the first port of call for many of the 35,000 migrants who have arrived in southern Europe this year. "Children, men and women have died."
The doomed vessel began its voyage in Egypt but picked up its passengers from Zuara on the northwest Libyan coast, according to reports.
An injured survivor from Bangladesh who was flown by helicopter to the Sicilian town of Catania told police: "There were 40 to 50 children and around 200 women [on board]. When we sailed, the traffickers locked the hatches to prevent people getting out."
Twenty-eight people were rescued in the incident, which happened inside Libyan waters. Last night the search operation was continuing, involving 17 Italian navy and coastguard vessels, backed by the country's air force and a Maltese patrol boat. With sea temperatures of 17C, migrants could stay alive in the water for some time, said the coastguard.
The tragedy marked a grim new record for deaths at sea, with this year's arrivals set to dwarf the figures from 2014. It spurred calls for the EU to restart comprehensive search-and-rescue operations, having ended Operation Mare Nostrum in October - a rescue mission that saved up to 100,000 lives last year.
In its place the EU runs a smaller border patrol service, Operation Triton. Last week Medecins Sans Frontiers announced that, given the lack of search-and-rescue operations by the EU, they were taking matters into their own hands and launching their own ship.
"They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war," said Pope Francis yesterday, in a departure from his expected speech. "They were looking for a better life."
European leaders expressed their support for an emergency summit, which could be held at the end of the week. EU foreign ministers were already due to gather in Luxembourg today.
"Stopping this needless suffering is a huge international challenge which demands a comprehensive, co-ordinated response," said Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary. "We must target the traffickers who are responsible for so many people dying at sea and prevent their innocent victims from being tricked or forced into making these perilous journeys."
In Spain, Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, agreed that action must be taken. "Today, and this is the umpteenth time, we hear of yet another human tragedy in the Mediterranean, off the Libyan coast," he said. "It's a daily drama. Words are not enough."
Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, described the smugglers behind the migrant crisis as a "scourge" that Europe had to address. His country has born the brunt of the migrant surge, funding Mare Nostrum to the tune of €9m a month, and housing thousands of migrants at transition centres on Sicily and Lampedusa, and in Calabria.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League, used the disaster to renew calls for Italy to institute a "naval blockade" against Libya. Lorenzo Guerini, the deputy secretary of Mr Renzi's Democratic Party, responded that it was "nauseating" for right-wing politicians, whom he described as "jackals", to make political capital out of the tragedy. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
How migrant tide has reached crisis
Christmas 1996: 300 believed drowned in the waters between Malta and Sicily.
June 20, 2003: 50 corpses found, 160 migrants missing, 41 survivors in a shipwreck off Tunisia.
October 20, 2003: At least 70 dead in waters off Sicily.
May 12, 2008: 50 dead off Sicily, including 47 who died aboard after suffering from exposure.
May 6, 2011: Boat carrying more than 600 migrants is shipwrecked off Libyan coast. Hundreds reported missing.
June 2, 2011: At least 270 missing as boat with 700 aboard sinks off Tunisian coast.
August 10, 2013: Six migrants drown, 94 rescued some 15 metres off a crowded swimming beach in Catania, Sicily.
October 3, 2013: 366 people die, 155 survive after shipwreck off Lampedusa.
February 6, 2014: At least 15 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa die while swimming from Moroccan coast as they try to reach Spanish enclave of Ceut a. Police fire rubber bullets at the swimmers to force them back to Morocco.
September 10, 2014: Some 500 Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Sudanese drown after their boat is rammed by another boat of human traffickers off coast of Malta.
September 14, 2014: Libyan navy reports 26 rescued from a boat carrying 250 migrants off Libyan coast. About 200 people are missing and presumed dead.
February 8-9, 2015: At least 29 die and 300 people reported missing after four boats become waterlogged in the frigid sea after leaving Libya.
April 12, 2015: Nine confirmed dead after boat capsizes off Libya. Some of the 144 survivors tell aid workers that about 400 aboard drowned.
April 15, 2015: Christian survivors from a boat of African migrants arriving in Palermo, Sicily, tell Italian authorities that Muslim passengers threw 12 migrants overboard to their deaths when fighting broke out on board.