ROME (Reuters) - More than 130 people were missing and at least 15 appeared to be dead after a boat carrying Eritrean and Somali refugees from Libya capsized south of Sicily early Wednesday, coast guard officials said.
Rescuers picked up 47 people, including a number of women and children, after the boat, which left Libya two days ago, sank at about 4:00 a.m. (0200 GMT) 40 miles south of the island of Lampedusa.
Fifteen bodies had been seen in the water by mid-morning, officials said but high winds and rough seas made it difficult for coast guard boats and a police helicopter to operate.
Monday, the United Nations refugee agency said more than 400 people fleeing Libya on two boats were missing.
The incident provided a stark illustration of the dangers run by desperate people who can pay about 1,000 euros ($1,427) for a place on one of the overloaded fishing vessels carrying refugees and migrants from Africa looking for work.
Thousands have braved the hazardous voyage so far this year after the collapse of the former Tunisian regime and fighting in Libya brought down strict border checks that had previously barred the way into Europe.
Most have been young men from Tunisia, seeking to get to France but in recent days there have been growing numbers of arrivals from Libya, underscoring Italian fears the fighting there could set off a new exodus.
Lampedusa, roughly midway between Sicily and Tunisia, has been the focal point for the crisis, with some 20,000 illegal migrants arriving this year and overwhelming the infrastructure of the tiny island, which normally lives on fishing and tourism.
Thousands were forced to shelter in makeshift tent encampments until Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sought to end the weeks-long emergency by sending specially commissioned ferries to clear the island.
However, that has simply shifted the problem to other areas in Italy and caused arguments among regional governments over where to set up migrant holding centers.
Italy has also been at odds over the issue with France, which has turned back migrants trying to cross the border.
Tuesday, Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni signed an agreement with the Tunisian government to try to halt the flow, pledging aid, increased police cooperation and possible compulsory repatriation for illegal immigrants.
The accord was confirmed Wednesday by a cabinet meeting in Rome which set up an inter-ministerial contact group to monitor progress.
(Writing by James Mackenzie, Editing by Matthew Jones)
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