Italian rescuers have found 18 bodies on a boat carrying hundreds asylum seekers, and suspect they were killed by fumes from the engine in the hold.
The boat, with 600 people on board, was intercepted south of the island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost point and a major landing point for migrant Mediterranean crossings from Libya, ANSA news agency reported on Saturday.
Another person died while being rescued and two more have been evacuated by helicopter and taken to Palermo hospital in Sicily in a serious condition, the report said.
The coastguard could not be reached for comment.
ANSA said Italian authorities were first alerted by a merchant ship in the area, about 148 kilometres from Lampedusa.
There has been a sharp rise in migrant landings in recent weeks because of the calm summer weather and growing lawlessness in Libya. Hundreds of migrants are now being intercepted by Italian authorities every day.
Most of them come from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria but there are also asylum seekers arriving from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of Asia as well as sub-Saharan Africa.
Earlier in July, Italian officials discovered the bodies of 45 migrants in the hold of a fishing boat, where they appeared to have suffocated after being locked in by traffickers.