The bodies of at least 30 have been found. A search by the Italian coast guard is ongoing to rescue 1,700 people.

Migrants in the Mediterranean after their boat sank, May 24, 2017.
Migrants in the Mediterranean after their boat sank, May 24, 2017.

At least 30 migrants including young children drowned on Wednesday when they fell off an overloaded vessel in the Mediterranean.

"About 200 people fell into the water when one of the boats listed dangerously," Coast Guard Commander Cosimo Nicastro told Reuters. "At least 20 dead bodies were spotted in the water."

The migrants were on a wooden boat carrying between 500 and 700 people and were just 20 nautical miles off the Libyan coast when the accident happened.

Co-founder of humanitarian rescue group MOAS, Chris Catrambone, said on Twitter that many corpses had been brought on board their ship, and that toddlers were among the dead seen in the water.

Rescuers are frantically trying to break open the locked hold on a wooden boat where hundreds of migrants are trapped!" he tweeted.

With the help of an Italian coast guard ship and several commercial ships, rescuers raced to drag as many people as possible from the water, while a military aircraft dropped life-rafts and a helicopter looked for survivors.

"Current body count at 31," Catrambone said, adding many who fell overboard had been "small toddlers".

The Coast Guard is calling in more ships to help with rescues, Nicastro said. Apart from the MOAS vessel, a tug boat was assisting in rescues coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard in Rome.

The migrants were on a wooden boat carrying between 500 and 700 people and were just 20 nautical miles off the Libyan coast when the accident happened.

The crew of the Phoenix aid boat, chartered by the Maltese NGO Moas, had begun the rescue and were distributing life jackets when many of those on deck fell into the water, perhaps knocked off balance by a wave.

"It's not a scene from a horror movie, it's a real-life tragedy that is taking place today at the gates of Europe," said Chris Catrambone, Moas co-founder, who was aboard the Phoenix and published photos showing dozens of migrants in the water.

With the help of an Italian coast guard ship and several commercial ships, rescuers raced to drag as many people as possible from the water, while a helicopter and military aircraft dropped lifeboats.

"There are still about 30 corpses floating in the area, many are young children," Catrambone added.

In total, about 15 relief operations were underway on Wednesday off Libya, the coast guard said without being able to give a total for the number of migrants involved.

On Tuesday, they coordinated the relief of about 1,500 migrants, while their Libyan counterparts intercepted 237 others.

The Libyan coast guard has recently begun carrying out its own operations at sea, towing migrant dinghies headed for Europe back to shore and locking up those recovered in centres which are renowned for human rights abuses.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies