A wooden boat packed with migrants crashed into rocky reefs and broke up before dawn Sunday off the Italian coast, authorities said. Rescuers recovered nearly 60 bodies and dozens more were missing in the troubled waters.

Authorities feared the death toll could exceed 100, as some survivors indicated the ship had up to 200 passengers when it left Turkey, United Nations migration and refugee agencies said.

At least 80 people have been found alive, including some who washed ashore after the shipwreck off the coast of Calabria along the Ionian Sea, the Italian Coast Guard said. One of the agency’s launches rescued two men suffering from hypothermia and recovered the body of a child.

Image:
The wreckage of an overturned boat washes up on a beach near Cutro, southern Italy, Sunday, February 26, 2023. Rescue officials say an unknown number of migrants have died and dozens have been rescued. after his boat broke down in southern Italy. (Antonino Durso/LaPresse via AP)Antonino Durso/AP

As sunset neared, firefighters said 59 bodies had been found.

A man was detained for questioning after other survivors suggested he was a smuggler, state television said.

The ship collided with reefs in rough, windswept seas. Three large pieces of the boat washed up on the beach near the town of Steccato di Cutro, where splinters of bright blue wood littered the sand like matchsticks.

“All the survivors are adults,” said Ignazio Mangione, a Red Cross volunteer. «Unfortunately, all of the children are among the missing or were found dead on the beach.» A baby was reported among the dead.

The boats were expected to continue searching through the night, despite worsening weather conditions. Rescue divers struggled in high waves.

Italian state television quoted survivors as saying the ship had left Turkey five days earlier.

Standing next to the wreckage on the beach, a reporter for Italian state television RAI noticed a life preserver with the word «Smyrna,» a Turkish port also known as Izmir.

More than 170 migrants are estimated to have been on board the ship, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration said in a joint statement.

Among them were “children and entire families”, according to the UN statement, with most of the passengers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.

Earlier, in an indication of the difficulty in establishing how many passengers had made the journey, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said some 200 people had been packed into a 66-foot (20-meter) boat.

The rescue operation involved a helicopter and a police plane, as well as boats from the state fire squads, the Coast Guard and the border police. Local fishermen also joined the search.

The bodies were taken to the sports stadium in the nearest town, Crotone. A local priest said that he blessed many of them while they were still lying on the beach.

Many of the survivors, wrapped in blankets and quilts, were taken by bus to a temporary shelter. State television said 22 survivors were taken to a hospital.

Pope Francis told the faithful in St. Peter’s Square that he was praying for the dead, the missing and the survivors. He added that he also prayed for the rescuers «and for those who welcome» the migrants.

«It’s a huge tragedy,» Crotone mayor Vincenzo Voce told RAI. «In solidarity, the city will find places in the cemetery» for the dead.

In 2022 some 105,000 immigrants arrived on Italian shores, some 38,000 more than in 2021, according to figures from the Ministry of the Interior.

According to UN figures, arrivals from the Turkish route accounted for 15% of the total number, with almost half of those fleeing Afghanistan.

In a statement issued by the prime minister’s office on Sunday, Meloni expressed «her deep sorrow for the many human lives taken by human traffickers.»

«It is inhumane to trade the lives of men, women and children for the ‘price’ of a ticket paid by them in the false prospect of safe travel,» said Meloni, a far-right leader whose government allies include anti- -migrants league party

He vowed to crack down on outings organized by people smugglers and to pressure other European Union leaders to help.

Opposition parties pointed to Sunday’s tragedy as proof of the flaws in Italy’s immigration policy.

«To condemn only the smugglers, as the center-right is now doing, is hypocrisy,» said Laura Ferrara, a European Parliament member of the populist 5-Star Movement.

“The truth is that the EU today does not offer effective alternatives for those who are forced to leave their country of origin,” Ferrara said in a statement.

Another route used by smugglers crosses the central Mediterranean Sea from the Libyan coast, where migrants often endure brutal detention conditions for months before they are allowed to board rubber dinghies or old wooden fishing boats to reach shores. Italian. The route is considered one of the deadliest.

The Meloni government has concentrated on complicating the efforts of humanitarian ships to carry out multiple rescues in the central Mediterranean by assigning them landing ports along the northern Italian coasts, which means the ships need more time to return to sea after taking the rescued, often hundreds of migrants, on board , safe to shore.

Aid organizations have lamented that the crackdown also includes an order to charity ships not to remain at sea after the first rescue operation in the hope of carrying out further rescues, but to proceed immediately to their assigned safe port. Violators face heavy fines and confiscation of the rescue vessel.

The Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, called on the European Union to «finally assume in a concrete way the responsibility of managing the migratory phenomenon to keep it away from human traffickers». He said the EU must support development in countries where young people who see no future decide to risk dangerous voyages by sea.

Italy has complained bitterly for years that other EU countries have refused to accept some of the new arrivals, many of whom are looking to find family or work in northern Europe.