By Hada Messia. Ben Wedeman and Laura Smith-Spark
Editor's note: Are you there?
ROME (CNN) -- At least 94 people, including a pregnant woman and two children, died when a boat capsized and caught fire off the island of Lampedusa, the Italian coast guard told CNN on Thursday.
The coast guard has been able to save at least 151 people, and the rescue operation is ongoing.
The boat is thought to have been carrying up to 500 people. Those aboard include Eritreans, Somalis and Ghanaians, the coast guard said, and the boat is thought to have launched from Libya's coast.
CNN forecasters said there were some gusting winds and showers Thursday morning in the region but no weather conditions significant enough to be likely to sink a boat.
Lampedusa, the closest Italian island to Africa, has become a destination for tens of thousands of refugees seeking to enter European Union countries.
According to Italian media reports, the vessel sank near Rabbit Beach, recently voted one of the best beaches in the world by Trip Advisor.
The head of the U.N. refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, praised the efforts of the Italian coast guard but said he was "dismayed at the rising global phenomenon of migrants and people fleeing conflict or persecution and perishing at sea."
Another 13 men drowned off Italy's southern coast Monday when they attempted to swim ashore, the U.N agency said in a statement.
It is working with countries in the region to find "effective alternatives" so people don't risk their lives trying to make perilous journeys by sea, it said.
Last week, the Italian coast guard rescued a ship bound for Lampedusa from Tunisia that had 398 Syrian refugees on board.
There is generally a spike in migrants coming to the island -- which has 6,000 full-time residents -- in the summer because the seas are calmer.
Migrants who spoke to CNN's Eric Marrapodi last week in Lampedusa said they typically spent a day or two at sea in boats that are barely seaworthy.
Those who arrive generally have no papers and seek asylum in Italy. They spend anywhere from a day to a week on Lampedusa before moving to another city on the mainland.
At the detention center where they first take the migrants, the coast guard said, they had 1,250 migrants in a space designed for 250.
A Navy doctor said that typically those who arrive are treated for dehydration, sun exposure, and gasoline burns, because they're so packed into the boats the fuel splashes and burns the skin.
The tiny island near Sicily was in the news this summer when the pope went there to pray for refugees and migrants lost at sea.
During his visit to Lampedusa in July, Pope Francis criticized what he called "global indifference" to the island's refugee crisis.
"We pray to God for the victims of the tragic shipwreck in Lampedusa," Francis said Thursday on the Italian version of his Twitter account.
In a statement issued by the Vatican, he called for concerted action to prevent such tragedies.
"It is a shame!" he said. "Let's pray together with God for those who have lost their lives: men, women, children and for the families of all the refugees. Let's bring our forces together so tragedies like these ones don't happen again."
Just under 115 kilometers (70 miles) from Tunisia, the island has been the first point of entry to Europe for more than 200,000 refugees and irregular migrants who have passed through the island since 1999.
But boats carrying migrants often are in peril at sea.
In recent years, the Italian Coast Guard says it has been involved in the rescue of more than 30,000 refugees around the island.
A risky journey
According to a briefing published by the U.N. refugee agency in July, the peak crossing period for migrants and asylum-seekers runs from May to September.
The agency estimates that 8,400 migrants and asylum-seekers landed on the coasts of Italy and Malta in the first six months of this year, all but 600 of them in Italy.
Most departed from North Africa, principally Libya, for the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, one of the busiest seaways in the world.
The migrants and asylum seekers chiefly come from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Somalia and Eritrea, it said. Others originate from Syria, Egypt or Pakistan, and smaller numbers from Gambia, Mali and Afghanistan.
The U.N. refugee agency recorded some 40 deaths in the first six months of 2013, a figure based on interviews with survivors of the crossing.
For 2012 as a whole, some 15,000 migrants and asylum-seekers reached Italy and Malta -- and almost 500 people were reported dead or missing at sea, it said.
The U.N. agency credits the efforts of the Italian coast guard and Maltese armed forces for a reduction in migrant deaths in the first half of 2013 compared with the previous year.
CNN's Hada Messia and Ben Wedeman reported in Rome and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN's Eric Marrapodi contributed reporting from Lampedusa. Kirsten Dewar and Saskya Vandoorne also contributed to this report.
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