At least seven migrants and asylum seekers have died while attempting the perilous Mediterranean crossing from Libya in a boat carrying 280 people in cold weather.
Three people were dead when the coast guard arrived for the rescue in rough waters on Tuesday, and a further four died while being transported to Lampedusa.
Two coast guard boats conducted the rescue while a boat from Italy’s financial police stood by during “an operation made more complex by the rough sea conditions,” the coast guard said.
Italian authorities said the 20-meter (65-foot) boat was in Tunisian waters when the distress call first came in, but that they were unable to locate the boat.
It was later found in the Italian search-and-rescue area, the coast guard said.
The NGO Alarm Phone, which forwards rescue calls from smugglers’ boats packed with migrants to authorities, said on Twitter that it took Italian rescue boats six hours to reach the migrants in distress.
“Their deaths could have been prevented,” the group said.