LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) - Italian coastguards recovered the bodies of 13 women who died after a crowded migrant boat capsized in bad weather as rescue craft approached it off the coast of Lampedusa, local authorities said on Monday.
The coastguard said 13 men and nine women survived the sinking of the boat, which was carrying more than 50 people when the disaster struck. Many of the migrants are still not accounted for, including a number of children.
“The boat was in no condition to make the crossing,” said Italian magistrate Salvatore Vella, who is investigating the disaster. “It is strange they put to sea in such bad weather.”
Vella said most of the passengers came from Tunisia or sub-Saharan Africa. None of them had life jackets.
The boat appeared to have started its voyage in Libya and stopped in neighbouring Tunisia, he added, before heading north towards Lampedusa, an Italian island which sits below Sicily and is a magnet for migrants seeking a new life in Europe.
“Most of the survivors ... are only alive thanks to the courage of the men of the coastguard and the police,” he said.
A coastguard and a police boat spotted the listing migrant boat just after midnight about 6 nautical miles from the coast of Lampedusa, having picked up a call for help late on Sunday.
“In order to proceed with the transfer operation, the naval units approached the small boat, but the adverse weather conditions and the sudden movement of migrants caused the vessel to overturn,” the coastguard said in a statement.
Coffins were lined up on the quay of the small port of Lampedusa as a coastguard ship entered harbour on Monday, bringing the bodies to shore.
Charlie Yaxley, a spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, said more than 1,000 people had died in the Mediterranean so far this year, most trying to cross from lawless Libya to Europe.
“This highlights once again that urgent action is needed to address the situation in the Mediterranean,” he said.
In a separate rescue operation, the Spanish charity ship Open Arms said it saved 44 people from another boat overnight, including a newborn child, in seas north of Libya. Malta has said it will let this group disembark on Tuesday.
The Italian interior ministry says 7,939 migrants have reached Italy by boat so far this year, down 63% on the same period in 2018 and 93% on 2017 levels.
Italy has introduced tough laws over the past year to dissuade charity rescue ships from operating in the Mediterranean in an effort to cut back on the number of possible asylum-seekers reaching the country.
The government has also urged both Tunisia and Libya to do more to prevent migrant boats from setting sail.
Over the past 18 months, the largest number of migrants entering Italy have come from Tunisia, a change from previous years when the new arrivals came mainly from sub-Saharan Africa.
Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 7, the interior ministry said 2,232 Tunisians had reached Italy by boat. The next largest group, by nationality, were Pakistanis with 997 making the crossing, followed by migrants from the Ivory Coast, who totalled 867.
Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alex Richardson, Alison Williams and Pravin Char