Seven migrants and asylum seekers have died, suffering from severe hypothermia, in a packed wooden boat off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa.
At least seven migrants and asylum seekers have died while attempting the perilous Mediterranean crossing from Libya in a boat carrying 280 people in cold weather.
Three people were dead when the coast guard arrived for the rescue in rough waters on Tuesday, and a further four died while being transported to Lampedusa.
Two coast guard boats conducted the rescue while a boat from Italy's financial police stood by during "an operation made more complex by the rough sea conditions," the coast guard said.
Italian authorities said the 20-meter (65-foot) boat was in Tunisian waters when the distress call first came in, but that they were unable to locate the boat.
It was later found in the Italian search-and-rescue area, the coast guard said.
The NGO Alarm Phone, which forwards rescue calls from smugglers' boats packed with migrants to authorities, said on Twitter that it took Italian rescue boats six hours to reach the migrants in distress.
“Their deaths could have been prevented,” the group said.
Severe state of hypothermia
The Mediterranean Hope migration project said on Twitter that the 280 migrants hailed originally from Bangladesh, Egypt, Mali and Sudan, and "almost all of them were in a severe state of hypothermia".
After undergoing coronavirus tests, the survivors were split between the health centre and the heavily overcrowded reception centre on the tiny island of Lampedusa.
The centre, which can hold 250 migrants, currently houses over 600 people.
While some 34,000 migrants arrived in Italy in 2020, that figure almost doubled to 64,500 people in 2021.
"The shocking thing is there continues to be a deafening silence from the Italian government and Europe, even in the face of deaths," Lampedusa's mayor Toto Martello told AFP News Agency.
"It's become a continuous phenomenon. There's no difference any more between summer and winter, when boats didn't use to arrive," Martello said.
Despite freezing temperatures and rough seas, over 1,750 people have arrived in Italy so far this month, compared to 379 in the same period last year.