More than 300 people drowned or were feared dead after a boat packed with African migrants caught fire and sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa on Thursday (October 3), one of the worst disasters of Europe's chronic immigration crisis.

The 20-metre (66-foot) boat, believed to be carrying around 500 people, mostly Eritreans and Somalis, sank no more than 1 km (half a mile) from shore after a fire broke out, triggering a general panic that capsized the vessel.

The incident occurred when the boat's motor stopped working and the vessel, which had set out from the Libyan port of Misrata, began to take on water, Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said.

Fishing boats and coast guard vessels rescued 151 people in the morning and by late evening 104 bodies, including at least three children and two pregnant women, had been recovered. But divers had seen scores more trapped in the sunken ship, which rested in some 40 metres (132 feet) of water.

The disaster happened four days after 13 migrants drowned off eastern Sicily. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said action was needed by the European Union to stem "a succession of massacres of innocent people".

Last year, almost 500 people were reported dead or missing on the crossing from Tunisia to Italy, the U.N. refugee office UNHCR says. Syrians fleeing civil war have added to the numbers.

Presented by Adam Justice

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