ROME - As many as 500 migrants are feared to have drowned after traffickers rammed and sank their boat in what the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) described Monday as "the worst shipwreck in years".
Horrific details of the shipwreck near Malta, told to IOM by survivors, came after dozens of African migrants were reported missing and feared dead after their boat sank off the coast of Libya on Sunday.
"If this story, which police are investigating, is true, it would be the worst shipwreck in years... not an accident but a mass murder, perpetrated by criminals without scruples or any respect for human life," IOM said in a statement.
Two Palestinians plucked from the water by a freighter on Thursday after their boat capsized told IOM that around 500 passengers had been on the vessel, which was wrecked on purpose by people smugglers.
According to the survivors, the Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian and Sudanese migrants set out from Damietta in Egypt on Sept 6, and were forced to change boats several times during the crossing towards Europe.
The traffickers, who were on a separate boat, then ordered them onto a smaller vessel, which many of the migrants feared was too small to hold them.
When they refused to cross over to the new boat, the furious traffickers rammed their boat until it capsized, the survivors told the maritime organisation.
"Two survivors brought to Sicily told us that there had been at least 500 people on board. Nine other survivors were rescued by Greek and Maltese ships, but all the rest appear to have perished," Mr Flavio Di Giacomo, IOM's spokesman in Italy, told AFP.
Both Palestinians spent a day and a half in the water, one wearing a lifejacket and the other holding on to a life buoy with other migrants, all of whom perished, including a young Egyptian boy who hoped to make money in Europe to pay for his father's heart operation, the organisation said.
In a separate incident, dozens were feared drowned after a boat carrying 200 migrants sank off Libya, with only 36 survivors rescued.
This year has seen a surge in the numbers of migrants attempting to make the hazardous crossing from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe.
According to the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR), over 2,500 people have drowned or gone missing attempting the crossing in 2014, including over 2,200 since the start of June.
Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, a special envoy for the UNHCR, urged the international community to "wake up to the scale of the crisis".
"There is a direct link between the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere and the rise in deaths at sea in the Mediterranean," she was quoted as saying in a UNHCR statement on Monday.
"We have to understand what drives people to take the fearful step of risking their children's lives on crowded, unsafe vessels. It is the overwhelming desire to find refuge," she said.
"Unless we address the root causes of these conflicts the numbers of refugees dying or unable to find protection will continue to rise," she added.
The IOM also called on the international community to crack down on traffickers, saying "the only way to render these organisations impotent is to begin to open legal canals into Europe for all those people, men, women and children, fleeing their homelands in search of shelter".
According to the Italian navy, some 2,380 migrants and asylum seekers were picked up over the weekend in a number of incidents by Italy's large-scale naval deployment dubbed Mare Nostrum, launched after over 400 people died in two shipwrecks last October.