Italy finds 30 bodies in migrant boat

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Media captionFootage from the Italian coastguard shows the boat in which 30 bodies were found, as the BBC's Alan Johnston reports

The Italian navy has found about 30 bodies in a fishing boat carrying hundreds of migrants between Sicily and the North African coast.

The migrants who died appeared to have been asphyxiated.

The discovery was made when rescuers boarded the vessel to evacuate a number of people said to be in distress, two of them pregnant women.

The navy says that over the weekend it rescued more than 5,000 migrants trying to cross from North Africa.

The figure was released soon after news emerged of the discovery of the bodies.

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Image caption Italy has strengthened its sea rescue operations after a migrant boat capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October, killing 360 people

The navy said that those who died were crammed into a compartment below decks.

The fishing boat was carrying about 600 migrants and is now being towed to the town of Pozzallo, southern Sicily.

Matthew Price reports on Italy's response to migrant surge

Italy cannot cope on its own. Its asylum system is already under strain. Europe has seen tens of thousands arrive this year, and - as word spreads that the Italian navy is actively rescuing people at sea - more will presumably be tempted to come.

BBC crew films migrant rescue in Mediterranean

Correspondents say that it is not clear whether the boat was sinking when it was intercepted.

The BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome says the latest discovery will again focus attention on the dangers faced by those who are so desperate to reach Europe they choose to make the journey aboard hopelessly overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels.

EU border agency Frontex says almost 60,000 migrants have already landed in southern Italy this year. The record of 63,000 set in 2011 is likely to be broken within weeks.

Most are from Africa or the Middle East and pay large sums to people smugglers in Libya who transport them in unsafe fishing vessels.

Officials say one reason for the rise in numbers is because of Libya's continuing political instability.

Italy - which bears the brunt of migrants making the perilous crossing - has repeatedly appealed for help from the EU to tackle the problem.

Earlier this month, at least 39 people drowned off Libya after an overloaded, inflatable boat capsized while trying to cross to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Last October, 360 people died when a boat sank off Lampedusa.

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