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Mediterranean Search Under Way for 700 Migrants Feared Lost at Sea

An Italian coast guard vessel is seen with an helicopter during the search and rescue operation underway after a boat carrying migrants capsized overnight, with up to 700 feared dead, in this still image taken from video, April 19, 2015.

Italy launched a massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sunday, after an overcrowded boat carrying hundreds of migrants capsized overnight off the coast of Libya. As many as 700 people are feared dead.

By nightfall Sunday, authorities said 28 people had been rescued about 200 kilometers south of the Italian island of Lampedusa, and another 24 bodies were recovered. Rescue workers said the majority of the missing appeared trapped in the 20-meter vessel at the bottom of the sea.

Sicily, Lampedusa, and the Libyan coast, in the Mediterranean
Sicily, Lampedusa, and the Libyan coast, in the Mediterranean

The boat capsized 193 kilometers south of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, when it is believed migrants moved to one side of the vessel as a merchant ship approached.

If confirmed, the latest drownings would push the 2015 Mediterranean death toll past 1,500, compared to about 90 such refugee deaths in the same period a year ago.

Analysts say they expect human trafficking in the Mediterranean to worsen in the coming months, as warming weather and the promise of European stability and prosperity lure desperate refugees from Africa and beyond.

As details of Sunday's disaster spread, government leaders across Western Europe called for emergency talks to address the crisis.

"We have said too many times, never again," European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement. "Now is the time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay."

In a televised address, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras urged the European Union to face the crisis head on. "The Mediterranean must stop being a graveyard sea, and southern European countries a storage [for] human souls," he said.

French President Francois Hollande directed his wrath at sea smugglers, who offer transit to desperate refugees seeking to flee Africa, South Asia and parts of the Middle East for the relative safety and prosperity of Europe.

"Those who put people on these boats are smugglers," Hollande said. "They are even terrorists, because they know perfectly well that these boats are unsafe, and that they will destroy the boats in the middle of the sea and put hundreds of people at risk to their lives."

Late Sunday, EU President Donald Tusk said he is considering an emergency summit to address the crisis.

In his weekly address in St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis called on the international community to prevent more migrant disasters.

"They are men and women like us," the pontiff said. "Brothers pursuing a better life, hungry, persecuted, hurt, exploited, victims of war. They are looking for a better life. They were pursuing happiness. I invite you to pray in silence, all together, for these brothers and sisters."

The pontiff also called for much greater international involvement in the burgeoning crisis.

Friday in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama and visiting Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi discussed the migrant crisis. The Italian leader said it is the responsibility of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East to stop human trafficking in close cooperation with the United Nations.

President Obama said countries in the region need to coordinate political action to counter terrorism and prevent Libya from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.