Pope Francis leads prayers for 170 migrants missing in Mediterranean shipwrecks
Three survivors say one dinghy left Libya with 120 on board
Pope Francis has expressed his grief at news that an estimated 170 migrants were believed to have drowned in recent days in the Mediterranean Sea.
The UN refugee agency has said 117 migrants died or were missing after a smuggler's inflatable boat sank off the Libyan coast on January 18, and that 53 others died after another migrant boat capsized in the western Mediterranean days earlier.
Speaking from St Peter's Square on Sunday, Pope Francis said those who drowned had looked for better lives and were "victims, perhaps, of human traffickers".
The pope said: "Let us pray for them and for those who have the responsibility for what happened."
Two Mediterranean nations, Italy and Malta, have cracked down on private groups whose vessels aim to rescue migrants from traffickers' unseaworthy boats.
A dinghy was spotted sinking in rough seas on Friday by an Italian military plane on patrol. The plane dropped two life rafts into the water but had to leave due to lack of fuel, Rear Admiral Fabio Agostini told TV channel RaiNews24.
A naval helicopter was dispatched and rescued three people who were suffering from severe hypothermia and taken to hospital on the island of Lampedusa.
"During this operation at least three bodies were seen in the water who appeared to be dead," Rear Adm Agostini said.
The three survivors said they had left Gasr Garabulli in Libya on Thursday night as part of a group of 120 people, mainly from west Africa, according to Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration.
"After 10 to 11 hours at sea ... [the boat] started sinking and people started drowning," Mr Di Giacomo said, adding that the passengers included 10 women and two children, one of whom was just two months old.
The Italian navy said it had alerted Libyan authorities, who ordered a nearby merchant ship to go to the site but the rescue effort was called off after the search proved fruitless.
In another incident, 53 migrants who left Morocco in a large dinghy were missing after what one survivor said was a collision in the Alboran Sea in the western Mediterranean, according to Spanish non-governmental organisation Caminando Fronteras.
The United Nations' Refugee Agency said in a statement it was deeply saddened by reports of an estimated 170 people dead or missing. It said it had been unable to independently verify the death toll.
Separately, the charity Sea-Watch said on Saturday it had rescued 47 people at sea, including eight unaccompanied minors, from a rubber boat in distress north of the Libyan city of Zuwara.
Matteo Salvini, Italy's interior minister, who has closed Italian ports to humanitarian boats since a populist government came to power in mid-2018, said the ports would remain closed to deter to human traffickers.
"The latest shipwreck is proof that if you reopen the ports more people will die," Mr Salvini said in a video on Facebook on Saturday.
He said 100 people had reached Italy this year compared with 2,000 in the same period of 2018.
Migrant arrivals to Europe in the first 16 days of 2019 totalled 4,449, almost all by sea, compared with 2,964 in the same period of 2018, IOM data showed.
It said last year about 2,297 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean, while 116,959 people reached Europe by sea.
Updated: January 21, 2019 06:22 PM