Spanish NGO says pregnant women among the dead and 167 people were found adrift off the coast of Libya. Meanwhile, EU member states extend Mediterranean rescue operation Sophia for 18 more months.
Rescuers coming to the aid of a dinghy packed with refugees off the coast of Libya said Tuesday they had discovered 13 bodies including those of pregnant women.
"Thirteen corpses in total. People who had names, surnames, mothers, fathers, friends, and lives," said Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish NGO involved in rescues in the Mediterranean, on Twitter.
"We have found 167 people drifting," it said earlier noting that "several pregnant women and mothers" were among an initial toll of 11 dead and that their relatives were on board.
A Save The Children ship on Tuesday rescued some 70 migrants who were also attempting to cross in a small boat.
The Italian coastguard confirmed the deaths and said worsening weather conditions at sea were likely to dissuade traffickers for now from setting more boats full of people to sail in the Mediterranean.
Close to 94,000 people have been brought to safety in Italy so far this year, according to Italy's interior ministry, an increase of over five percent compared to the same period last year.
At the same time over 2,370 people have died attempting the notoriously perilous crossing, the UN refugee agency said.
Policing rescue boats
The fresh deaths came as Italy's Interior Minister Marco Minniti was due to meet with NGOs to discuss a new "code of conduct" to regulate the operations of privately-run rescue boats.
The 12-point code, which has been given the green-light by Brussels, would ban aid vessels from entering Libyan territorial waters and oblige them to accept anti-trafficking police officers on board.
While some of the NGOs operating in the Mediterranean have agreed to sign the code, others have insisted doing so would put the lives of vulnerable migrants at sea in flimsy vessels at risk.
Minniti has insisted that those who do not sign the document will not be allowed to dock at Italian ports.
Extension of rescue operation Sophia
European Union member states on Tuesday extended the landmark Sophia rescue operation in the central Mediterranean for another 18 months amid growing concern at the huge number of refugees and migrants crossing to Europe.
More than 100,000 from North Africa and the Middle East have made the trip so far in 2017, often in flimsy boats run by unscrupulous people smugglers, according to UN figures. Most have landed in Italy which complains bitterly that its EU partners have not done enough to share the burden.
EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said that since Sophia was set up in 2015 after thousands of migrants and refugees drowned, "many suspected smugglers have been apprehended and many lives saved.
"Today, I'm particularly proud to announce that the mandate of Operation Sophia has been unanimously renewed," Mogherini said in a statement.
Sophia was originally a straightforward rescue operation but Mogherini pushed for it to take on increased powers and responsibilities, including the use of force to stop and destroy smugglers' boats in international waters.
That move was seen as part of Mogherini's efforts to give the EU some real teeth to deal with the wider security issues posed by the refugee crisis.
Additionally, Sophia took on the role of training the Libyan coastguard and navy, and helping implement a UN arms embargo against strife-torn Libya, the setting-off point for most of the refugees.
Member states agreed Tuesday Sophia would take on several new tasks – to monitor how well the Libyan coastguard trainees worked out and to "conduct new surveillance activities and gather information on illegal trafficking of oil exports from Libya".
At the same time, it would look to increase information sharing on human trafficking, a hugely profitable business for the criminal gangs involved.