Seven migrants have died after attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in freezing conditions, the Italian coastguard has said.
Another 280 migrants were rescued onboard an overcrowded wooden boat off the coast of Lampedusa, the authority added.
Three of the victims were found dead as the coast guard arrived, while four others died from apparent hypothermia while being transported to the small Italian island. Most of the migrants were from Egypt and Bangladesh.
The coast guard said in a statement that the rescue operation was made more difficult by “rough sea conditions”.
Italian authorities said the 20-metre wooden boat was in Tunisian waters when the distress call first came in but that they were unable to locate the vessel for several hours.
The NGO Alarm Phone — which forwards rescue calls from migrant boats to authorities — said on Twitter that the migrants’ deaths “could have been prevented”.
Migrants crossings to Italy are significantly higher this year than the past two winters, totalling 2,051 through early on Tuesday.
The International Organization for Migration has marked 2021 as the deadliest for the central Mediterranean crossing route since 2018, with at least 1,315 dead. More than 23,383 other migrants are missing and presumed dead in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014.
Meanwhile, the health and reception centre on Lampedusa remains overcrowded, with more than 600 people occupying just 250 spaces.