A total of 19 people have been found dead on board a crowded boat of African migrants as it was travelling to Italy.
The migrants are thought to have died from poisonous carbon monoxide fumes emitted by the old boat’s engine.
Italian and Maltese naval vessels, with the assistance of a Danish cargo ship, led the rescue of hundreds of asylum seekers travelling from north Africa on the smugglers boat bound for Italy.
It is thought there were up to 600 people travelling on the boat that was picked up early on Saturday morning in the waters near Libya and Malta.
The people found dead in the boat’s hull were reportedly discovered in a tangled mass of bodies. Italian news agency Ansa said the 18 who died on the ship are thought to have choked on fumes from an old engine.
One migrant died aboard an Italian Coast Guard motorboat while being evacuated. Two more people have been airlifted to a hospital in a serious condition.
On Friday, Ansa reported that migrants that had been rescued by a merchant ship earlier in the week had spoken of a shipwreck in which between 40 and 60 people are thought to have drowned, but Italian authorities have not confirmed this.
The Italian Navy is understood to have rescued more than 4,000 migrants in the last three days, and Italy is struggling to keep up with the number of migrants coming to its shores, according to Reuters.
More than 500 migrants have died in the Mediterranean this year alone, while 700 were thought to have died at sea for the whole of 2013, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The Italian Navy claims more than 70,000 migrants have been rescued this year as part of the “Mare Nostrum” mission.
This surpasses the previous record of 60,000 rescued in 2011, when the Arab Spring uprisings caused a surge in migration, Reuters reported, adding that calmer summer seas have led to an increase in boats trying to reach Italy’s shores, though the country’s immigration centres are overloaded.