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Published: Tuesday May 13, 2014 MYT 2:01:21 AM
Updated: Tuesday May 13, 2014 MYT 2:01:21 AM

Migrant boat carrying hundreds sinks south of Sicily, at least 14 dead

ROME (Reuters) - Italian naval and coast guard vessels recovered 14 bodies and rescued around 200 people after a migrant boat sank in the sea between Libya and southern Sicily, authorities said on Monday, a day after dozens were drowned in a similar incident.

Italy has struggled for decades with a stream of migrants travelling in small, unsafe boats from North Africa to the islet of Lampedusa, midway between Tunisia and Sicily. The influx of migrants has grown since the Arab Spring upheavals of 2011 and the protracted civil war in Syria.

An Italian navy statement said two naval and two coast guard patrol boats and a vessel from the Guardia di Finanza customs police had joined the rescue operation on Monday and medical assistance was being provided to survivors.

It was unclear how many other survivors or bodies might remain in the water, with some Italian media reports saying the boat may have been carrying as many as 400 people when it sank some 60 miles off the Libyan coast.

On Sunday, at least 40 people died and 51 others were rescued after a boat carrying migrants mostly from sub-Saharan Africa sank off Libya's coast east of Tripoli.

Hundreds of migrants were drowned in two separate disasters last year that prompted the Italian government to step up air and marine patrols of the seas south of Sicily.

Well over 25,000 migrants have reached Italy in the first few months of this year, with the collapse of order in large parts of Libya leaving authorities struggling to combat the groups that control the illegal migrant traffic.

"There has been an unexpected wave of illegal immigration these days and we do not know the reasons why this has happened yet," said Libyan Navy spokesman Col. Ayoub Qassem. With less than two weeks to go before European parliamentary elections, the issue of immigration has become a hot political topic, with Italian politicians repeating longstanding calls for other countries in Europe to do more to help.

"There needs to be urgent action by the European Union to open reception camps managed directly by the United Nations for refugees in Libya," Khalid Chaouki, an immigration specialist from Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party.

However, Italy's anti-immigration Northern League party repeated its call for the Mare Nostrum naval task force set up last year to be scrapped, saying it encouraged people smugglers.

"The Mare Nostrum operation is false charity, Russian roulette disguised as a humanitarian operation," said Gianluca Pini, a lawmaker from the party.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson)

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