More than 4,600 Europe-bound migrants were rescued off the Libyan coast while 28 others, including at least 22 in an overloaded wooden boat, were found dead on Tuesday, the Italian coastguard said.
The latest efforts came a day after more than 6,000 migrants, most of them Africans, were saved while making a perilous Mediterranean crossing. Nine bodies were found in those operations, including a pregnant woman.
The Italian coastguard — which is coordinating rescue efforts in international waters north of Libya — said the 28 bodies were recovered over the course of 33 operations.
At least 4,655 migrants had also been rescued, according to the Italian coastguard which further said that a helicopter had to be used to evacuate four people, including a pregnant woman suffering from medical complications.
An AFP photographer, who was able to go aboard one of the vessels, said it appeared that many of the dead had suffocated.
"It was a wooden vessel and there were about 1,000 people on three levels. I counted 22 bodies and there are still others in the hold," the photographer was quoted as saying.
The photographer who was travelling on the Astral, a ship chartered by Spanish organisation ProActiva Open Arms, said he saw several hundred migrants awaiting rescue in packed vessels.
There was panic onboard, with people jumping into the water, according to the photographer.
ProActiva Open Arms is a Barcelona-based body whose main mission is to rescue migrants from sea.
Resumen ayer da 2.Rescate y visita guiada a su peor pesadilla:las bodegas bajo la cubierta donde pasan horas hacinados cientos de personas. pic.twitter.com/zmqalQsnvQ
— PROACTIVA OPEN ARMS (@PROACTIVA_SERV) October 4, 2016
With numerous rescue boats en route to Italy to unload the huge human cargo collected on Monday, the Astral was left alone to deal with the overloaded wooden boat for several hours.
It was aided only by lifeboats dropped by a Spanish military plane until the navy arrived at midday. The Astral's rescue operations had begun before dawn and lasted until nightfall.
The latest people to be rescued will add to a total of some 132,000 migrants who have landed at Italy's southern ports so far this year, fleeing conflict, poverty or persecution and hoping to start new lives in Europe.
The new arrivals are mostly Africans who plan to try to get to northern Europe but increasingly are obliged to seek asylum or the right to remain in Italy, where reception centres have been strained to bursting point.