Rome: More than 200 migrants are missing after their overcrowded dinghies sank in the Mediterranean, international agencies said Wednesday, warning that the final toll from the latest boat tragedy could be much higher.
Nine survivors were rescued by the coast guard and taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa, out of more than 200 who had left Libya on Saturday piled into rubber dinghies, the International Organization for Migration said.
"Nine were saved after four days at sea. The other 203 were swallowed by the waves," the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokeswoman in Italy, Carlotta Sami, said on Twitter.
Several thousand people have died trying to make the perilous crossing from north Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean in the last year alone.
The IOM said the surviving migrants from the latest disaster spoke French, so probably came from west African nations such as Ivory Coast and Senegal.
"Because of the bad weather conditions, the two dinghies collapsed and the people fell at sea. Many drowned," IOM spokesman in Italy Flavio Di Giacomo said.
The organisation's spokesman in Geneva Joel Millman told AFP that information was coming in about other stricken boats and warned that the overall toll "could easily triple by the end of the day".
Di Giacomo said the latest victims had left from a beach near Tripoli along with another dinghy also carrying more than 100 migrants plucked from their distressed boat by the Italian coastguard early Monday.
Twenty-nine of them died of exposure in horrific conditions in international waters but humanitarian organisations said it was an avoidable tragedy.
Their small boat was hopelessly ill-equipped to cope with waves up to eight metres (25-feet) high, gale-force winds and torrential rain.
But doctors involved in the rescue operation believe more would have survived if they had been rescued by a large military vessel rather than the small patrol boats that were sent to their aid.
The latest deaths have highlighted the limited means and scope of Triton, an EU-run mission which took over in November from the Italian navy's Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation.
Italy decided to scale back the mission after its EU partners refused to share running costs of around nine million euros ($10 million) a month.
Triton, which comes under the authority of the EU borders agency Frontex, has a monthly budget of 2.9 million euros ($3.3 million) and its patrols are generally restricted to the territorial waters of EU member states.
Humanitarian groups said their warnings about what would happen after Mare Nostrum was suspended had been proven true.
Well over 3,200 people have died in the last year attempting to reach Italy by boat from North Africa.
Over 170,000 people were landed in Italy in 2014 after being picked up by the navy, coastguard or merchant ships.
Most of the migrants are fleeing conflict and repression in the Middle East and east Africa and make their way overland to Libya to board boats operated by people smugglers.
Recently some smugglers have begun using bigger boats which can withstand winter storms and make longer journeys, notably from Turkey or Syria.