Rome (AFP) - More than 300 migrants are feared drowned after their overcrowded dinghies sank in the Mediterranean, triggering calls for the world to act after the latest boat disaster in a perilous crossing from Africa to Europe.
The victims were mainly from sub-Saharan Africa who had left the coast of conflict-wracked Libya at the weekend in four small inflatable boats, the UN refugee agency said.
"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," UNHCR Europe director Vincent Cochetel said in a statement.
Details of the apparent mass drownings emerged after nine migrants -- in a group of more than 200 packed into two dinghies -- were rescued by the coastguard and taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
"Nine were saved after four days at sea. The other 203 were swallowed by the waves," UNHCR's Italy spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said.
A total of 29 Africans believed to have sailed in another one of the dinghies perished from exposure after being picked up by the Italian coastguard on Monday.
The UN refugee agency on Wednesday said reports from survivors in Lampedusa now suggest some 300 people are confirmed missing, while a fourth boat is unaccounted for.
The International Organization for Migration said it feared the latest death toll could eclipse the shocking single accident tally from October 2013, when 366 migrants drowned off Lampedusa in a similar attempt to reach Europe.
- 'Forced aboard with guns' -
IOM said the migrants had travelled to Libya from Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, and that three children travelling on their own were among the survivors.
"What's happening now is worse than a tragedy -- it's a crime," IOM chief William Lacy Swing said in a statement. "The world must act."
Last year, more than 3,200 people died while attempting to reach Italy by boat from North Africa.
IOM warned 2015 could be even deadlier, pointing out that the latest suspected drownings come on top of 115 deaths reported in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year, more than four times the number during the same period last year.
Survivors who spoke with the organisation's staff in Lampedusa on Wednesday described how ruthless smugglers had forced them to board inflatable rafts and set out in raging seas.
"They forced us to climb aboard the ship with guns and sticks, robbing us of all our belongings," one survivor was quoted as saying by IOM.
The 29 who died of exposure on Monday were picked up from a small boat that was hopelessly ill-equipped to cope with waves up to eight metres (25-feet) high, gale-force winds and torrential rain.
Doctors involved in the rescue operation believe some of them would have survived if they had been rescued by a large military vessel rather than the small patrol boats that were sent to their aid.
- 'Heads in the sand' -
The latest deaths have highlighted the limited means and scope of Triton, an EU-run mission which took over in November from the Italian navy's Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation.
Italy decided to scale back the mission after its EU partners refused to share running costs of around nine million euros ($10 million) a month.
Triton, which comes under the authority of the EU borders agency Frontex, has a monthly budget of 2.9 million euros ($3.3 million) and its patrols are generally restricted to the territorial waters of EU member states.
"If we are to talk seriously about improving the situation then we also need to talk about financing it adequately," European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said.
Amnesty International slammed EU countries Wednesday for "burying their heads in the sand while hundreds keep dying at sea."
But Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called for a halt to the "derby" between Triton and Mare Nostrum. "Europe has to realise that as well as Ukraine and Greece, there is also Libya which has been out of control for years.
"If we want to stop the Mediterranean turning into a cemetery the priority has to be to resolve the situation in Libya."
More than 170,000 people arrived in Italy in 2014 after being picked up by the navy, coastguard or merchant ships.
Most of them left from Libya, where port controls have all but disappeared with the country's descent into violent chaos since the 2011 ouster of former dictator Moamer Kadhafi.