A boat carrying 400 migrants sails between Greece and Malta

MILAN (Reuters) – A ship with about 400 passengers on board is sailing between Greece and Malta, the phone alert service said on Sunday, after a sharp rise in the number of migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.

The alarm phone said on Twitter that they had received a call from the boat that left from Tobruk in Libya overnight and that they had notified the authorities. But they added that the authorities had not yet launched a rescue operation.

The alarm phone said the boat is now in the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) area.

The German NGO Sea-Watch International said on its Twitter account that it found the boat and in the vicinity of two commercial vessels.

It said that the Maltese authorities had ordered the ships not to undertake a rescue operation and that only one of them had been asked to refuel.

Maltese authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.

People on board panicked, many needing medical attention, the alarm phone said. They said the ship had run out of fuel and its lower deck was full of water, while the captain had left and there was no one who could steer the boat.

Another NGO, German Rescue, said on Sunday that at least 23 migrants had died overnight in the Mediterranean in a separate drowning accident.

She said on Twitter that the NGO found 25 people in the water during a rescue operation, and her staff managed to pull out 22 survivors and two bodies, despite being told about 20 more people had already drowned.

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Last week, the GeoParents vessel of the charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) rescued 440 migrants off the coast of Malta after a complex 11-hour operation in stormy seas.

At least 23 African migrants are missing and four died on Saturday after their boats sank off Tunisia while trying to reach Italy.

Reporting by Giulio Piovaccari; Additional reporting by Christopher Scicluna in Valletta; Writing by Giulio Piovaccari; Editing by Toby Chopra and Barbara Lewis

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