As many as 700 migrants were feared drowned Sunday after their packed boat capsized off Libya in what was described as the deadliest such disaster to date in the Mediterranean.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and Italy’s coastguard said only 28 people had survived the wreck. Their testimonies suggested there had been about 700 people on board the 20-metre fishing boat, officials said.

“It seems we are looking at the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean,” UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said. The European Union announced an emergency meeting of foreign and interior ministers to discuss what Amnesty International blasted as an avoidable “man-made tragedy”.

Coastal authorities in Italy and Malta picked up a distress signal from the stricken vessel around midnight (10pm GMT) on Saturday, when it was about 126 km off the Libyan coast and 177 km south of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

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The Italian coastguard instructed a nearby merchant ship to go to the scene and it was when the Portuguese-registered King Jacob arrived at the scene that the fishing boat capsised, most likely as a result of the terrified passengers stampeding to one side in their desperation to get off, the UNHCR’s Sami said.

A total of 17 boats scoured the area for survivors on Sunday but only 24 bodies had been recovered so far, the coastguard said.

The disaster was the latest in a growing catalogue of mass drownings of migrants attempting to reach Europe on overcrowded, unseaworthy boats run by people smugglers who are able to operate out of Libya with impunity because of the chaos engulfing the north African state.

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The most serious incident prior to Sunday occurred off Malta in September 2014. An estimated 500 migrants drowned in a shipwreck caused by traffickers deliberately ramming the boat in an attempt to force the people on board onto another, smaller vessel.

More than 11,000 other would-be immigrants have been rescued since the middle of last week and current trends suggest last year’s total of 170,000 migrants landing in Italy is likely to be at least match in 2015.

Pope Francis on Sunday led calls for European Union leaders to act to stem the loss of life.

“These are men and women like us, brothers seeking a better life,” he said in his weekly address to the Roman Catholic faithful in St Peter’s square, urging leaders to “act decisively and quickly to stop these tragedies from recurring”. Amnesty’s John Dalhuisen called Sunday’s accident a “man-made tragedy of appalling proportions”. “These latest deaths at sea come as a shock, but not a surprise.” Amnesty is among NGOs calling for the restoration of an Italian navy search-and-rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum which was suspended at the end of last year.

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Italy scaled back the mission after failing to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of $9.7m a month amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.