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Rome — A smuggler's boat crammed with hundreds of people overturned off Libya's coast as rescuers approached, causing what could be the Mediterranean's deadliest known migrant tragedy and intensifying pressure on the European Union Sunday to finally meet demands for decisive action.

Survivor accounts of the number aboard varied, with the Italian Coast Guard saying that the capsized boat had a capacity for "hundreds" of people. Italian prosecutors said a Bangladeshi survivor flown to Sicily for treatment told them 950 people were aboard, including hundreds who had been locked in the hold by smugglers. Earlier, authorities said a survivor told them 700 migrants were on board.

It was not immediately clear if they were referring to the same survivor, and Premier Matteo Renzi said Italian authorities were "not in a position to confirm or verify" how many were on board when the boat set out from Libya.

Eighteen ships joined the rescue effort, but only 28 survivors and 24 bodies had been pulled from the water by nightfall, Renzi said.

These small numbers make more sense if hundreds of people were locked in the hold, because with so much weight down below, "surely the boat would have sunk," said Gen. Antonino Iraso, of the Italian Border Police, which has deployed boats in the operation.

United Nations refugee agency spokeswoman Carlotta Sami told Italian state that according to one survivor, when the boat overturned, "the people ended up in the water, with the boat on top of them."

"There are fears there could be hundreds of dead," Pope Francis said in St. Peter's Square, urging "the international community to act decisively and promptly, to prevent similar tragedies from occurring again."

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