A boat carrying about 700 migrants sunk in the Strait of Sicily between Italy and Libya.
Italian Coast Guard officials said the boat sank Saturday night off the Libyan coast with a commercial ship managing to rescue 28 people, while the bodies of 21 others were found.
The search continues for survivors of the disaster, as officials believe that nearly 700 migrants were killed in the incident.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi also said the number of bodies found has reached 28 bodies, adding that emergency crews are expected to recover more bodies.
"How can we stay indifferent towards this matter?", Renzi asked during an election rally in the city of Mantova in northern Italy. The prime minister has suspended his election campaign and returned to Rome to follow developments.
The Prime Minister of Malta Joseph Moscato said the boat sank in Libyan territorial waters, adding that a patrol boat from Malta is helping the Italian search and rescue teams in the search for survivors among the bodies floating in the sea.
Spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rome, Federico Fossi, said in a statement to Anatolia agency that conflicting information about the incident is being reported.
"The Italian Coastguard claim 700 people may be dead or missing, and that they have unconfirmed information about the rescue of 22 people, while the Frontex agency, which is responsible for the protection of the borders of the European Union, announced that 49 people were rescued, while some newspapers said the number of the rescued is only 28 people", Fossi said.
UNHCR spokesperson Carlotta Sami described the incident as a "massacre", stating if the number of the victims reached 700, it would become the biggest tragedy in the region. Sami noted that 1,500 people have died in the same area over the past three and a half months.
Sami stressed that European countries should respond to what is happening, adding the incident is not only related to Italy, but also to Turkey and Greece.
Pope Francis expressed deep sorrow for the victims in his speech from his window in front of the assembled crowd in St. Peter's Square, calling on the international community to act decisively in order to prevent the recurrence of such incidents in the future.
Translated and edited by The Syrian Observer