By Massimiliano Di Giorgio

ROME (Reuters) - At least 82 people died and scores were missing after a boat carrying migrants from Africa sank off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Thursday, officials and rescuers said.

The mayor of Lampedusa, Giusy Nicolini, said 82 dead bodies had been recovered, mostly Somalis and Eritreans, and the toll was rising, with the bodies being laid out on the harbor.

"It's horrific, like a cemetery, they are still bringing them out," she told reporters.

The coastguard said it appeared that there were between 400 and 500 migrants on the boat when it sank, and 150 had been saved so far.

Thousands of desperate migrants from Africa arrive in Italy on unsafe, overcrowded vessels every year, with most coming to Lampedusa, a tiny island just 113 kilometers (70 miles) from the coast of Tunisia.

Numbers have been boosted this year by thousands of refugees from the civil war in Syria, most of whom have arrived on the eastern coast of Sicily from Egypt.

Four coastguard and police vessels and two helicopters were in the area, and a submerged vessel of about 20 meters (66 feet) in length had been identified in the water after it caught fire and sank, officials said.

Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said in a statement he was being kept constantly up to date about the situation, with the death toll expected to rise. Coastguard official Floriana Segreto said rescue operations were continuing.

A fishing boat raised the alarm at around 7:20 a.m. (0520 GMT) and began pulling people out of the water before coastguard vessels arrived on the scene.

The boat sank just four days after 13 migrants drowned when their boat foundered off eastern Sicily.

Lupi said more needed to be done to combat people traffickers who coordinated the transport of migrants in crowded and unsafe vessels.

"It is a task which we have to take on and which the international community and the European community have to take on as well," Lupi said in a statement.

(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)


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