ROME — A smuggler's boat crammed with hundreds of people overturned off Libya's coast as rescuers approached, causing what could be the Mediterranean's deadliest known migrant tragedy and intensifying pressure on the European Union Sunday to finally meet demands for decisive action.
"How can it be that we daily are witnessing a tragedy?" asked Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, who strategized with his top ministers ahead of Monday's European Union meeting in Luxembourg, where foreign ministers scrambled to add stopping the smugglers to their agenda.
Eighteen ships joined the rescue effort in the waters off Libya, but only 28 survivors and 24 bodies were pulled from the water by nightfall, Renzi said. Italian authorities were "not in a position to confirm or verify" one survivor's estimate that 700 people were thrown into the water, he added.
Resurgent right-wing political parties have made a rallying cry out of a rising tide of illegal migration. So far this year, 35,000 asylum seekers and migrants have reached Europe and more than 900 are known to have died trying.
With Sunday's tragedy, demands for decisive action were going mainstream, as authorities from France, Spain, Germany and Britain joined calls for a unified response.
"Europe can do more and Europe must do more," said Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament. "It is a shame and a confession of failure how many countries run away from responsibility and how little money we provide for rescue missions."
Europe must mobilize "more ships, more overflights by aircraft," French President Francois Hollande told French TV Canal + on Sunday. "Words won't do anymore," Spain's Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, told a political rally.
Renzi said he too wants action, but he rejected calls by some Italian lawmakers for a naval blockade. That would only "wind up helping the smugglers" since military ships would be there to rescue any migrants, and they wouldn't be able to return passengers to chaos and violence in Libya.
Meanwhile Sunday, rescuers were "checking who is alive and who is dead" in an area littered with debris and oil from the capsized ship. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose island nation joined the effort, said only 50 survived, and called it the "biggest human tragedy of the last few years."
The 20-meter (66-foot) vessel may have overturned because migrants rushed to one side of the craft late Saturday night when they saw an approaching Portuguese-flagged container ship, the King Jacob, which was sent to the area by Italy's Coast Guard. The ship's crew "immediately deployed rescue boats, gangway, nets and life rings," a spokesman for its owner said.
Asked whether migrants rushed to one side as the Portuguese vessel pulled close, Italian Border Police Gen. Antonino Iraso told Sky TG24 TV that "the dynamics aren't clear. But this is not the first time that has happened."
Renzi praised the container ship for quickly responding on what would become its fifth recent rescue operation.
"Since the waters of the Mediterranean Sea are not too cold at the moment, the authorities hope to find more survivors," said International Organization for Migration spokesman Joel Millman.
United Nations refugee agency spokeswoman Carlotta Sami tweeted that according to one survivor, the boat had set out with 700 migrants aboard. When it overturned, "the people ended up in the water, with the boat on top of them," Sami told Italian state TV.
Many bodies may never be recovered from waters that run as deep as 3 miles (5 kilometers) or more.
"There are fears there could be hundreds of dead," Pope Francis said in St. Peter's Square, lending his moral authority to the political calls for action by urging "the international community to act decisively and promptly, to prevent similar tragedies from occurring again."
Desperate migrants fleeing war, persecution and conflict in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have long tried to reach Europe. Libya has increasingly become a more frequent point of departure in the years since rival militias, tribal factions and other political forces destabilized the country following the bloody end of Moammar Gadhafi's dictatorship.
Malta and Italy are closest to the Libyan coast, and have received the brunt of a migrant tide that carried 219,000 people from Africa to Europe last year. Some 3,500 are known to have died along the way, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement Sunday.
In Italy's Parliament, the leaders of foreign affairs and defense commissions pushed for the EU and the UN to prepare a naval blockade of Libya's coast. Without one, "the traffickers will continue to operate and make money and the wretched will continue to die," said Pier Fernando Casini, the Senate foreign affairs commission president.
Contributors include Nicole Winfield in Rome, Stephen Calleja in Malta, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Harold Heckle in Madrid, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, and Raf Casert in Brussels. Follow Frances D'Emilio at www.twitter.com/fdemilio