ROME -- At least 40 migrants died Saturday in the hold of an overcrowded smuggling boat in the Mediterranean Sea north of Libya, apparently killed by fuel fumes, and some 320 others aboard were saved by the Italian navy, the rescue ship's commander said.
Migrants by the tens of thousands are braving the perilous journey across the Mediterranean this year, hoping to reach Europe and be granted asylum. They are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
"The dead were found in the hold," Cmdr. Massimo Tosi, speaking from the navy ship Cigala Fulgosi while the rescue was still ongoing. Asked by RaiNews24 how the migrants died, Tosi said "it appears to be from inhaling exhaust fumes."
When rescuers stepped aboard the boat, the bodies of migrants were "lying in water, fuel, human excrement" in the hold, Tosi said.
The death toll was not yet final.
"They are still counting the victims," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told reporters.
Tosi said the survivors included three children and 45 women, some of whom "were crying for their husbands (and) their children who died in the crossing."
An estimated 2,300 migrants have died at sea this year trying to make the crossing, according to figures released Friday by the International Organization for Migration. The Libya-to-Italy route is by far the deadliest. The exact toll of dead will never be known, as some smuggling boats are believed to have gone down at sea without rescuers being aware of them.
The number of migrants trying to reach Europe by sea is on track to hit a record this year, according to the IOM. Greece has reported 134,988 arrivals from Turkey this year, it said.
Alfano told a news conference that as of Saturday, 103,000 migrants had been rescued at sea and brought to Italy in operations coordinated by the Italian coast guard. Along with a few other migrants landing in Spain and Malta, that means more than 243,000 people have crossed so far this year, compared to 219,000 for all of 2014.
In Libya, smugglers have taken advantage of the increased chaos and fighting among the North African nation's tribes and militias, some of whom are loyal to the Islamic State group. The violence escalated after the 2011 ouster and killing of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Diplomatic efforts so far haven't succeeded in forming a unity government out of the rival factions ruling different sections of Libya.
"Either the international community is able to resolve the Libyan question, or today's (migrant tragedy) won't be the last," Alfano said.