ROME - Italy lashed out at the European Union on Tuesday after 17 bodies were recovered and 206 people were saved from a migrant shipwreck, as rescuers described scenes of panic in the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano urged more assistance from Europe for border patrols, threatening that otherwise Italy would defy EU asylum rules and allow migrants to travel on to other countries in Europe.
"We'll just let them go," he said, although the Dublin Convention states that migrants must remain in the country in which they arrive and make their asylum application until their status as refugees is approved.
Alfano has spoken of an immigration "emergency" and has said refugee centres are already badly overcrowded, pointing out that most migrants do not want to stay in Italy and want to join family in other parts of Europe.
The ministry reported 36,000 migrants landing so far in 2014 - many from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria - compared to 42,925 for all of 2013, 13,267 in 2012 and 63,000 in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring revolts.
Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, drown every year.
Countries in southern Europe complain they are shouldering the burden of migrant arrivals but northern European states take in more confirmed refugees, while the EU's border agency Frontex is stretched thin.
"Europe is leaving us on our own," Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has promised to make immigration a top priority during Italy's EU presidency this year, said on ReteQuattro television after Monday's disaster.
"It can't save governments and banks and then let mothers and children die," the prime minister said.
The Italian navy on Tuesday said a rescue operation involving warships, coast guard and border patrol vessels as well as merchant ships had been completed.
Italian media cited coast guards as saying that around 400 asylum-seekers may have been on board the boat, which would leave dozens still unaccounted for.
But Mauro Casinghini, the director of rescue services in Italy for the Order of Malta, which had a doctor and two nurses assisting survivors with the coast guard at the scene, said there were some 250 people on the boat.
He said most of the migrants on the rickety boat, which probably departed from Libyan shores, were from Eritrea, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria.
'Nearly didn't make it'
Casinghini described to AFP scenes from the shipwreck as recounted to him by the doctor, Antonella Godino.
A Somali woman, Amina, was found gripping a piece of wood floating in the water and holding on to her four-month old baby after the boat capsized and sank in international waters between Libya and Italy.
"She nearly didn't make it. The waves were lapping at her chin and she was barely holding her baby above the water," he cited Godino as saying.
"When we held the little baby, we were afraid his heartbeat would not come back. We dried him, wrapped him up in a thermal blanket and put him in the warmest place we could find - next to the engine room." Giuseppe Cannarile, a coast guard, was quoted by the La Stampa daily as saying: "We don't know how many were on board but the survivors told us it was in the hundreds".
The navy said two merchant vessels - the Vanuatu-flagged Kehoe Tide and the French ship Bourbon Arcadie - were scrambled to the area as soon as the boat was spotted by a coast guard patrol plane.
One of the Italian warships, the Grecale frigate, was headed for the port of Catania in Sicily with the survivors and the bodies of the victims on board.
Italian media said it was expected at 1600 GMT.
The La Repubblica daily said the migrant boat did not sink right away and rescuers managed to board it to evacuate people before it capsized at around 1100 GMT.
"They managed to rescue dozens of people who were terrified below deck or gripping the handrail or in the water trying to stay afloat," the report said.
The Italian navy launched a large-scale operation to rescue migrants and deter traffickers following two separate shipwreck tragedies in October 2013 in which more than 400 people drowned off Italy's shores.