By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - More than 30 migrants, mostly toddlers, drowned on Wednesday when about 200 people without life jackets fell from a boat into the sea off the Libyan coast before they could be hauled into waiting rescue boats.
The boat was near a rescue vessel when it suddenly listed and many migrants tumbled into the Mediterranean, Italian Coast Guard commander Cosimo Nicastro told Reuters. "At least 20 dead bodies were spotted in the water," he said.
The rescue group MOAS, which also had a ship nearby, said it had already recovered more than 30 bodies. "Most are toddlers," the group's co-founder Chris Catrambone said on Twitter.
The coast guard called in more ships to help with the rescue, saying about 1,700 people were packed into about 15 vessels in the area.
The transfer from these overloaded boats is risky because desperate migrants in them sometimes surge to the side nearest a rescue vessel and destabilise their flimsy craft, which then list dangerously or capsize.
More than 1,300 people have died this year on the world's most dangerous crossing for migrants fleeing poverty and war across Africa and the Middle East.
Last Friday, more than 150 disappeared at sea, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday, citing migrant testimony collected after they disembarked in Italy.
In the past week, more than 7,000 migrants have been plucked from unsafe boats in international waters off the western coast of Libya, where people smugglers operate with impunity.
Despite efforts by Italy and the European Union to bolster the Tripoli-based coast guard and funnel training and equipment to fight trafficking to the U.N.-backed government, record numbers of migrants are coming this year.
GROUP OF SEVEN SUMMIT
Italy is hosting a meeting of the world's seven major industrialised nations in Sicily on Friday and Saturday, and is pushing the group, which includes the United States, to put migration, Libya's stabilisation and African development at the top of the agenda.
"The tragedy of children dying in the Mediterranean is a wake-up call to leaders meeting in Sicily," the United Nations Children's Fund Executive Director Justin Forsyth, who is traveling to the summit, said in a statement.
"These extremely vulnerable children need action now."
More than 50,000 migrants have been rescued at sea and brought to Italy so far, a 46 percent increase on the same period of last year, the Interior Ministry said this week.
Most rescues take place just outside the 12-mile mark that separates Libyan territory from international waters.
It is a busy stretch of sea where humanitarian vessels, the Libyan Coast Guard and even scavengers hoping to recover abandoned migrant boats and their engines all operate.
The Libyan Coast Guard on Tuesday fired shots as non-governmental vessels conducted rescues nearby, humanitarian group Jugend Rettet, which operates the Iuventa rescue ship, said in a statement.
The shooting prompted about 100 migrants to jump into the water and swim toward humanitarian vessels. It was unclear if anyone had been killed or wounded. The Libyans then towed two migrant boats back to shore while humanitarian groups brought more than 1,000 on board.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Tom Heneghan)