MADRID AND BEIRUT — Hundreds of migrants are feared drowned in the Mediterranean Sea near Libya, migrant advocates and Italian officials said Tuesday, a grim result of a wave of desperate maritime human smuggling to Italy.
At least 200 migrants are missing after an overloaded boat sank about 30 miles off Libya's coast, where Libyan rescuers recovered at least 23 survivors and 20 corpses Monday, according to the International Organization for Migration in Geneva.
"The rescue operation has ended," said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the organization. "It doesn't look good."
In another incident, an Italian oil freighter rescued 356 people crammed aboard a boat that was in distress in strong wind and choppy water, Italian officials said.
Other boats may be in trouble. Libyan authorities lost radio contact Saturday night with two vessels, according to migrant advocates, who said it was not clear whether the two were fishing or smuggling boats. The incidents were reported Tuesday morning.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva said Tuesday that "details were still sketchy" and that "at least" one boat had sunk.
There were reports that a second boat packed with migrants had gone down, said a Red Cross official based in Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island near Tunisia that is a major illegal gateway to Europe.
"We have heard that two boats sank and that the number of missing could be much higher," Laura Rizzello, a Red Cross nurse, said in a telephone interview. "It's a horrible humanitarian tragedy. It sounds like they departed Libya with a rough sea hoping that the weather would improve. The risk is always present that something like this could happen."
The missing and rescued included Egyptians, Tunisians and sub-Saharan Africans, advocates and officials said. Numbers were difficult to pin down because the Libyan and Italian governments provided little information.
The calamity aggravated a furor over smuggling from Libya to southern Italy. The number of illegal immigrants intercepted at sea by Italy doubled last year to about 34,000, most of them arriving in Lampedusa.
Over the weekend, the Italian Coast Guard rescued 222 migrants, mostly Africans and 43 of them Nigerian women, on a boat near Lampedusa, while two vessels carrying about 350 people landed in Sicily.
Libya serves as a clandestine transit point for tens of thousands of Europe-bound migrants and refugees from Africa and the Arab world, a flow pushed toward Italy by tougher enforcement by Spain. Citing accounts by detainees, human rights activists say that corrupt Libyan officials are abusing migrants and participating in or permitting the smuggling.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said Tuesday that a joint anti-smuggling plan with Libya, to be launched in May, will be effective. But he indirectly criticized the Libyan government.
"We control and manage those who arrive on vessels in Italian waters," Maroni told journalists, according to Italian news reports. "We provide rescue and support. . . . We do all this, although we know that others, who should intervene, turn their heads the other way."
An official at the Libyan Embassy in Rome declined to comment. The Libyan Coast Guard and an Italian oil supply vessel, the Asso22, teamed up Sunday in the rescue of the 356 migrants near an oil platform, said an Italian Coast Guard official in Rome.
Smugglers pack as many as 300 migrants aboard dilapidated fishing boats. They use smaller Zodiac launches, which are intended for 10 passengers, to carry about 50. The squalid, grueling journeys to Italy often take days. Migrants suffer from exposure, dehydration and injuries. Many have died, but the number of casualties in this case could be the highest, officials said.
"This tragic incident illustrates, once again, the dangers faced by people caught in mixed irregular movements of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean and elsewhere which every year cost thousands of lives," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters on Tuesday.
Times staff writer Maria de Cristofaro in Rome contributed to this report.