VALLETTA/CATANIA - An Italian patrol ship arrived in Malta on Monday with 24 corpses recovered out of hundreds feared drowned after a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean, in one of the worst disasters yet in a growing humanitarian crisis.
The death toll from Sunday's shipwreck off the coast of Libya was uncertain after officials said there had been at least 700 people on board, some reportedly locked in the hold.
Italian media said a Bangladeshi survivor brought by helicopter to hospital in Sicily told police there had been 950 passengers on the boat, which sank when people on board rushed to one side to attract attention from a passing merchant ship.
A toll of that magnitude would push to over 1,500 the number of people who have died so far this year packed into rickety boats by human traffickers to cross the Mediterranean in a bid to reach a better life in Europe.
Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said on Monday the United Nations should mandate a force to intervene directly in Libya to disrupt or attack the traffickers and stop the boats from setting off.
The Italian coast guard said on Monday 28 people had been saved from where the ship sank, 70 miles (110 km) off the coast of Libya. The survivors are on the same boat as the victims and will be brought to Italy later in the day.
Lawlessness in Libya, where two rival governments are fighting for control, has made it almost impossible to police the criminal gangs who can charge thousands of dollars to bring mainly sub-Saharan Africans to Europe.
"I believe that the (European) focus should be what should be done in Libya to stop the boats," Maltese premier Muscat said.
"Unless something is done about Libya, these scenes will be repeating themselves."
Before Sunday's disaster, the International Organisation for Migration estimated around 20,000 migrants had reached the Italian coast this year, and 900 had died.
Italy closed dedicated maritime search and rescue mission"Mare Nostrum" late last year, making way for a Europe-wide border control operation called "Triton" which has been criticised for having a much smaller budget and narrower remit.
EU foreign ministers will discuss the immigration crisis at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.
Muscat will be in Rome on Monday to meet with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, followed by a news conference.