Rome: As many as 500 migrants could have died after traffickers rammed and sank their boat in the Mediterranean last week, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said on Monday, quoting survivors.
Two Palestinians plucked from the water by a freighter on Thursday after their boat capsized near Malta told the organisation that there had been around 500 passengers on the vessel, which was wrecked on purpose by people smugglers.
"Two survivors brought to Sicily told us that there had been at least 500 people on board. Nine other survivors were rescued by Greek and Maltese ships, but all the rest appear to have perished," Flavio Di Giacomo, IOM's spokesman in Italy, told AFP.
Details of the shipwreck could not be independently verified.
According to the survivors, the Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian and Sudanese migrants set out from Damietta in Egypt on September 6, and were forced to change boats several times during the crossing towards Europe.
The traffickers, who were on a separate boat, then ordered them onto another, smaller vessel, which many of the migrants feared was too small to hold them.
When they refused to cross over to the new boat, the furious traffickers reportedly rammed their boat until it capsized, the organisation said.
Italian police have opened an inquiry into the shipwreck.
According to the Italian navy, some 2,380 migrants and asylum seekers were rescued over the weekend by Italy's large-scale naval deployment dubbed "Mare Nostrum", launched after over 400 people died in two shipwrecks last October.