Tunisian would-be immigrants await to be transfered out of the Italian island of Lampedusa on March 30, 2011. Tension is rising on the Italian Mediterranean island of Lampedusa over the thousands of immigrants arriving from Libya, with patience running out as the numbers grow. More than 2,000 people have fled Libya by boat to Malta and Italy, but none among them appear to be Libyans according to a spokeswoman from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). - AFP Photo

ROME: Hopes faded on Thursday for some 150 African refugees fleeing Libya whose boat capsized in the middle of the Mediterranean in rough weather, a day after 53 survivors were plucked from the sea.

"We are still searching for 150 people. The hope of finding other survivors is fading by the hour," Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said in parliament.

“The search resumed this morning," he said.

Three Italian coast guard vessels and two planes, a Maltese boat and two commercial vessels are taking part in rescue operations.

The accident happened in the early hours of Wednesday amid three-metre high waves in waters that are formally under Maltese jurisdiction.

Italy's coast guard said 20 corpses had been spotted in the area, while helicopter pilots who flew over the area said they had seen "dozens" of bodies near the boat including small children.

"Our hope is of finding a survivor, maybe someone who held on to a piece of the wreckage," said Pietro Carosia, head of the coast guard in Lampedusa, an Italian island where thousands of migrants have landed in recent weeks.

The Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration estimated some 300 people were on the boat and more than 200 people were therefore missing.

The Italian coast guard put the number at closer to 200 and said 20 bodies had been spotted so far, putting the number of missing at around 130.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sent his condolences to victims' relatives and US actress Angelina Jolie, a goodwill ambassador for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, said she was "greatly saddened" by the accident.

"We have urgently to find solutions to guarantee a safe corridor to civilians fleeing the fighting in Libya," she said in a statement.

Television images on Wednesday showed shaken-looking survivors wrapped in thermal blankets being helped off coast guard boats on Lampedusa.

Some, including a heavily pregnant woman, were taken to hospital.

The coast guard said in a statement that the boat had departed from the town of Zuwarah in western Libya near the border with Tunisia. The statement said the people on the boat were mostly Eritreans and Somalis.

Hundreds of African refugees from Libya -- many of them migrant workers stranded after the start of an uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi and the beginnings of a civil war -- have landed in Italy in recent days.

More than 25,000 migrants fleeing continuing unrest in Tunisia have also arrived on Lampedusa in recent weeks, sparking a humanitarian emergency.

Migrants and refugees often travel in rickety and overcrowded wooden fishing boats and there have already been recently smaller accidents at sea.

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