The Norman Atlantic (WikiCommons)
Bad weather is hampering with evacuating the Norman Atlantic ferry of passengersWikiCommons Eustace Bagge

A rescue operation is underway after a car ferry carrying more than 400 passengers caught fire in the Adriatic Sea, said officials.

The ship, Norman Atlantic, caught fire at 6am local time 40 miles north of Corfu, close to the Albanian port of Vlore, while travelling from Patras, Greece, to Ancona in Italy.

Greek, Italian and Albanian emergency services are evacuating the ship of passengers.

It is believed that strong winds are hampering rescue efforts. A Greek official told Sky News that explosions were still being heard on board the ship.

Passengers on board spoke of their mounting fear.

"We urgently need help. We cannot leave the ship. There are boats but we are trapped," one passenger told Greek newspaper The Daily.

"Our shoes were melting while we were in the reception area," one passenger told Greek TV station Mega.

The boat sent out distress signals when a fire broke out on a lower deck, Greek officials said.

About 150 passengers, of the 411 on board, made it into lifeboats and were rescued by a nearby container ship.

Another 30 Passengers were transferred to safety onto another vessel.

People are still believed to be trapped on the ship's upper decks.

Nearby ships have been ordered to take passengers and crew from the burning ferry.

At least seven are reported to have joined rescue efforts, with some forming a wall to form protection against the gale force winds.

No injuries have been confirmed.

"This is a complicated rescue mission… The visibility is poor and the weather conditions are difficult, but we are confident because there are a good number of ships in the area," Greek merchant marine minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said.

"We are in constant contact with Italian authorities and the Greek armed forces. We are committed to rescuing everyone on the ship, and are trying to ensure that nobody will be left unaided," he said.