Survivor: Smugglers locked hundreds in hold of capsized boat

Some 700 Migrants Feared Dead Off Libyan Coast

ROME (AP) -- A smuggler's boat crammed with hundreds of people overturned off Libya's coast as rescuers approached, causing what could be the Mediterranean's deadliest known migrant tragedy and intensifying pressure on the European Union Sunday to finally meet demands for decisive action.

Italian prosecutors said a Bangladeshi survivor flown to Sicily for treatment told them 950 people were aboard, including hundreds who had been locked in the hold by smugglers. Earlier, authorities said a survivor told them 700 migrants were on board.

It wasn't immediately clear if they were referring to the same survivor, and Premier Matteo Renzi said Italian authorities were "not in a position to confirm or verify" the death toll.

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Survivor: Smugglers locked hundreds in hold of capsized boat
Rescued migrants off the Libyan coast arrive at the harbor in Catania, Italy on April 20, 2015. More than 700 people are feared dead following the capsize off Libya of a fishing boat that had been crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe. (Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI via APF/Getty Images)
A migrant disembarks from the Italian Coast Guard ship Gregretti which is believed to be carrying 27 survivors of the migrant shipwreck in the mediterranean, at Catania port on April 20, 2015 in Catania, Italy. The weekend saw the worst disaster of its kind as hundreds of migrants are believed to have perished as they attempted to cross the mediterranean from Libya to Italy in order to seek refuge. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
Women leave flowers in memory of victims near the Italian Coast Guard ship Gregretti which is believed to be carrying 27 survivors of the migrant shipwreck in the mediterranean, at Catania port on April 20, 2015 in Catania, Italy. The weekend saw the worst disaster of its kind as hundreds of migrants are believed to have perished as they attempted to cross the mediterranean from Libya to Italy in order to seek refuge. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
Italian Minister Graziano Delrio stands on the deck of Italian Coast Guard ship Gregretti which is believed to be carrying 27 survivors of the migrant shipwreck in the mediterranean, at Catania port on April 20, 2015 in Catania, Italy. The weekend saw the worst disaster of its kind as hundreds of migrants are believed to have perished as they attempted to cross the mediterranean from Libya to Italy in order to seek refuge. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
A migrant is pictured at the Palazzolo Acreide immigration center, on April 17, 2015 in Sicily. The U.N. refugee agency said over 35,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea (including 23,500 who landed in Italy and over 12,000 in Greece) in 2015. At the same time, some 950 people have been reported dead or missing at sea. Last year some 219,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean (Italy alone received over 170,000). Most of them were rescued by the Italian Navy, the Coast Guard or merchant vessels. It is estimated that some 3,500 people lost their lives at sea last year. AFP PHOTO / GIOVANNI ISOLINO (Photo credit should read GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
Local residents and rescue workers help a migrant woman after a boat carrying migrants sank off the island of Rhodes, southeastern Greece, on April 20, 2015. At least three people, including a child, died when a boat carrying more than 80 migrants sank off the Greek island of Rhodes today, police said.(Photo credit: ARGIRIS MANTIKOS/AFP/Getty Images)
An Italian Naval officer saltes as the body of a person who died after a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, is brought ashore along with 23 others retreived by the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta on April 20, 2015. More than 700 people are feared dead following the capsize off Libya of a fishing boat that had been crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe. (Photo credit: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images)
Survivors of an accident in which a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, sit on the deck of the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta on April 20, 2015. More than 700 people are feared dead following the capsize off Libya of a fishing boat that had been crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe.(Photo credit: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images)
An Italian naval officer salutes as the body of person who died after fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, is brought ashore along with 23 others retreived by the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta on April 20, 2015. More than 700 people are feared dead following the capsize off Libya of a fishing boat that had been crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe. (Photo credit: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images)
Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti sits in the dock at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta on April 20, 2015, after bringing survivors and the bodies of victims of a boat capsize. More than 700 people are feared dead following the capsize off Libya of a fishing boat that had been crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe.  (Photo credit: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images)
Survivors from the shipwreck of a boat arrive on April 15, 2015 aboard the tanker Maria Bottiglieri in the port of Corigliano Calabro. Italian coastguards intercepted 42 boats on April 12 and 13, carrying 6,500 migrants attempting to make the hazardous crossing to Europe. AFP PHOTO / ALFONSO DI VINCENZO (Photo credit should read ALFONSO DI VINCENZO/AFP/Getty Images)
Shipwrecked migrants sit on the deck of a rescue vessel as they arrive in the Italian port of Augusta in Sicily on April 16, 2015. As many as 41 migrants drowned after a small boat carrying refugees sank in the Mediterranean, Italian media said, days after 400 were lost in another shipwreck. Four survivors told Italian police and humanitarian organisations that their inflatable vessel sank not long after leaving the coast of Libya for Europe with 45 people on board. AFP PHOTO / GIOVANNI ISOLINO (Photo credit should read GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
Italian Red Cross personnel prepare to give first aid to shipwrecked migrants as they arrive in the Italian port of Augusta in Sicily on April 16, 2015. As many as 41 migrants drowned after a small boat carrying refugees sank in the Mediterranean, Italian media said, days after 400 were lost in another shipwreck. Four survivors told Italian police and humanitarian organisations that their inflatable vessel sank not long after leaving the coast of Libya for Europe with 45 people on board. AFP PHOTO / GIOVANNI ISOLINO (Photo credit should read GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
TV crews wait at the Catania's habour, in Sicily, for the arrival of the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti on April 20, 2015 as more than 700 people are feared dead after a fishing boat crammed with migrants seeking a better life in Europe capsized off Libya, with some survivors suggesting nearly 1,000 could have been on board. Italian and Maltese navy boats meanwhile continued a desperate search for the victims of Sunday's disaster, as an Italian vessel brought the first group of survivors and 24 bodies to Malta. AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Medics take care of migrants disembarking from a boat in the port of Messina after a rescue operation at see on April 18, 2015 in Sicily. A surge of migrants pouring into Europe from across the Mediterranean won't end before chaos in Libya is controlled, Italy's prime minister said yesterday, as the Vatican condemned a deadly clash between Muslim and Christian refugees on one boat. Italian authorities have rescued more than 11,000 migrants making the often deadly voyage from North Africa in the past six days, with hundreds more expected, the coastguard said.(Photo credit: GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
A boat transporting migrants arrives in the port of Messina after a rescue operation at see on April 18, 2015 in Sicily. A surge of migrants pouring into Europe from across the Mediterranean won't end before chaos in Libya is controlled, Italy's prime minister said yesterday, as the Vatican condemned a deadly clash between Muslim and Christian refugees on one boat. Italian authorities have rescued more than 11,000 migrants making the often deadly voyage from North Africa in the past six days, with hundreds more expected, the coastguard said. (Photo credit:  GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - APRIL 20: People stage a demonstration for the migrants who drowned of around 700 migrants off the Libyan coast on Sunday, in Brussels, Belgium on April 20, 2015. Around 700 migrants are dead after a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean sea, in the the Strait of Sicily, between Italy and Libya, an Italian coast guard official has said on Sunday. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - APRIL 20: People stage a demonstration for the migrants who drowned of around 700 migrants off the Libyan coast on Sunday, in Brussels, Belgium on April 20, 2015. Around 700 migrants are dead after a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean sea, in the the Strait of Sicily, between Italy and Libya, an Italian coast guard official has said on Sunday. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
CATANIA, ITALY - APRIL 20: A banner reading 'No more shipwreck, European Right of Asylum to avoid further deaths' is shown at the Catania port prior an Italian Coast Guard ship that will arrive in the evening in the Port of Catania carrying 27 migrant survivors of a shipwricking between Sicily and north of Africa on April 20, 2015 in Catania, Italy. The weekend saw the worst disaster of its kind as hundreds of migrants are believed to have perished as they attempted to cross the mediterranean from Libya to Italy in order to seek refuge. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - APRIL 20: People stage a demonstration for the migrants who drowned of around 700 migrants off the Libyan coast on Sunday, in Brussels, Belgium on April 20, 2015. Around 700 migrants are dead after a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean sea, in the the Strait of Sicily, between Italy and Libya, an Italian coast guard official has said on Sunday. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - APRIL 20: People stage a demonstration for the migrants who drowned of around 700 migrants off the Libyan coast on Sunday, in Brussels, Belgium on April 20, 2015. Around 700 migrants are dead after a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean sea, in the the Strait of Sicily, between Italy and Libya, an Italian coast guard official has said on Sunday. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Eighteen ships joined the rescue effort, but only 28 survivors and 24 bodies were pulled from the water by nightfall, Renzi said.

These small numbers make more sense if hundreds of people were locked in the hold, because with so much weight down below, "surely the boat would have sunk," said Gen. Antonino Iraso, of the Italian Border Police, which has deployed boats in the operation.

Prosecutor Giovanni Salvi told The Associated Press by phone from the city of Catania that a survivor from Bangladesh described the situation on the fishing boat to prosecutors who interviewed him in a hospital. The man said about 300 people were in the hold when the fishing boat overturned, and that about 200 women and dozens of children also were on board.

Salvi stressed that there was no confirmation yet of the man's account and that the investigation was ongoing.

Iraso said the sea in the area is too deep for divers, suggesting that the final toll may never be known. The sea off Libya runs as deep as 3 miles (5 kilometers) or more.

"How can it be that we daily are witnessing a tragedy?" asked Renzi, who strategized with his top ministers ahead of Monday's European Union meeting in Luxembourg, where foreign ministers scrambled to add stopping the smugglers to their agenda.

Resurgent right-wing political parties have made a rallying cry out of a rising tide of illegal migration. So far this year, 35,000 asylum seekers and migrants have reached Europe and more than 900 are known to have died trying.

With Sunday's tragedy, demands for decisive action were going mainstream, as authorities from France, Spain, Germany and Britain joined calls for a unified response.

"Europe can do more and Europe must do more," said Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament. `'It is a shame and a confession of failure how many countries run away from responsibility and how little money we provide for rescue missions."

Europe must mobilize "more ships, more overflights by aircraft," French President Francois Hollande told French TV Canal + on Sunday. "Words won't do anymore," Spain's Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, told a political rally.

Renzi said he too wants action, but he rejected calls by some Italian lawmakers for a naval blockade. That would only `'wind up helping the smugglers" since military ships would be there to rescue any migrants, and they wouldn't be able to return passengers to chaos and violence in Libya.

Meanwhile Sunday, rescuers were "checking who is alive and who is dead" in an area littered with debris and oil from the capsized ship. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose island nation joined the effort, said only 50 survived, and called it the "biggest human tragedy of the last few years."

The 20-meter (66-foot) vessel may have overturned because migrants rushed to one side of the craft late Saturday night when they saw an approaching Portuguese-flagged container ship, the King Jacob, which was sent to the area by Italy's Coast Guard. The ship's crew "immediately deployed rescue boats, gangway, nets and life rings," a spokesman for its owner said.

Asked whether migrants rushed to one side as the Portuguese vessel pulled close, Iraso told Sky TG24 TV that `'the dynamics aren't clear. But this is not the first time that has happened."

Renzi praised the container ship for quickly responding on what would become its fifth recent rescue operation.

"Since the waters of the Mediterranean Sea are not too cold at the moment, the authorities hope to find more survivors," said International Organization for Migration spokesman Joel Millman.

United Nations refugee agency spokeswoman Carlotta Sami tweeted that according to one survivor, the boat had set out with 700 migrants aboard. When it overturned, `'the people ended up in the water, with the boat on top of them," Sami told Italian state TV.

"There are fears there could be hundreds of dead," Pope Francis said in St. Peter's Square, lending his moral authority to the political calls for action by urging "the international community to act decisively and promptly, to prevent similar tragedies from occurring again."

Desperate migrants fleeing war, persecution and conflict in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have long tried to reach Europe. Libya has increasingly become a more frequent point of departure in the years since rival militias, tribal factions and other political forces destabilized the country following the bloody end of Moammar Gadhafi's dictatorship.

Malta and Italy are closest to the Libyan coast, and have received the brunt of a migrant tide that carried 219,000 people from Africa to Europe last year. Some 3,500 are known to have died along the way, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement Sunday.

In Italy's Parliament, the leaders of foreign affairs and defense commissions pushed for the EU and the UN to prepare a naval blockade of Libya's coast. Without one, "the traffickers will continue to operate and make money and the wretched will continue to die," said Pier Fernando Casini, the Senate foreign affairs commission president.

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