At least two hundreds migrants are dead after the motorboats they were travelling on sank in the Mediterranean Sea, the UN’s refugee agency says.
“Nine were saved after four days at sea. The other 203 were swallowed by the waves,” UNHCR’s spokeswoman in Italy, Carlotta Sami, said on Twitter.
She called the situation a “horrible and enormous tragedy”.
On February 9, at least 29 migrants died after the inflatable boat carrying them overturned in high seas.
Seven were already dead when they were picked up near the Italian island of Lampedusa, and a further 22 succumbed to hypothermia after spending more than 18 hours on the open deck of the vessel which picked them up.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says the two boats involved in the latest tragedy to befall migrants bound for Europe crossing the Mediterranean Sea had departed from the Libyan coast on February 7.
The IOM says that each boat was carrying more than 100 people when they capsized, probably on February 9.
The nine survivors all speak French, and are believed to be from West Africa.
The Italian government launched a search and rescue mission called Mare Nostrum to patrol the waters off the Libyan coast for ships carrying migrants that may have run into trouble in response to a previous tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa.
The mission was launched after a fishing boat capsized off the island in October 2013, killing 366 people, but was disbanded a year later.
UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has warned that as many as 700,000 people could have fled Syria by the end of the year, a huge increase on its previous estimate.
Some 294,000 refugees have already left Syria, and the UNHCR is appealing for money to help deal with the crisis.
Most of the refugees are housed in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Rami Abdel Rahman, from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), said the figure included only those whose names had been documented.
UNHCR has warned that as many as 700,000 people could have fled Syria by the end of the year
“If we count the unidentified bodies, the figure will be much higher,” he said.
The observatory (SOHR) said 199 of Wednesday’s dead were civilians.
The SOHR is one of the most prominent organizations documenting and reporting incidents and casualties in the Syrian conflict. The group says its reports are impartial, though its information cannot be independently verified.
Other groups estimated Wednesday’s death toll to be considerably higher.
The UNHCR said between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees were fleeing the violence into neighboring countries every day.
“Many refugees are arriving with only the clothes on their backs,” said Panos Moumtzis, the agency’s regional co-ordinator for Syrian refugees.
“Some have been displaced many times before leaving Syria. They need humanitarian assistance from day one.”
The agency said in March it estimated that about 100,000 people would have fled by the end of the year.
But that number was surpassed in July.
The agency said it was urgently trying to prepare for winter, warning that many of the refugees were still living in tents.
For much of the past 18 months rebel groups have been fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Activists estimate more than 27,000 people have died in the violence.
Repeated efforts by the international community to find a diplomatic solution have foundered because of a deep divide at the UN Security Council.
Late on Wednesday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Security Council was “paralyzed” and urged the members to overcome their differences.