Italy searches for migrants ahead of papal visit

Italy's navy on Wednesday said it was searching for a boat carrying dozens of migrants on which several fatalities have been reported near the island of Lampedusa -- a European entryway for migrants that Pope Francis is to visit next week.

The navy said in a statement it had dispatched a patrol boat and a helicopter to the area some 80 nautical miles (148 kilometres, 92 miles) from Lampedusa , where a Tunisian fishing boat reported seeing a vessel carrying around 80 migrants.

"Some of them are believed to have died," it said.

Two coast guard vessels are also being deployed.

A joint navy and coast guard operation earlier on Wednesday intercepted a boat carrying more than 200 migrants and two French journalists also off the coast of Lampedusa, Italian media reported.

A total of 227 people were on board, including 41 women and four children.

Lampedusa is a transit point for thousands of undocumented migrants into the European Union, who often make perilous journeys on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies across the Mediterranean.

An outcrop covering just 20 square kilometres (7.8 square miles), Lampedusa is closer to North Africa than to the Italian mainland and tens of thousands of migrants have landed there since the beginning of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011.

Hundreds have drowned over the past two years or been suffocated in the often heavily overcrowded boats.

Sixty-five migrants on Wednesday were rescued off the coast of the Calabria region on mainland Italy on a boat that was taking on water and risked sinking.

Pope Francis has said he wants to visit Lampedusa on Monday to pray for people who have lost their lives in the crossings and offer support to the local population, which has hosted the migrants.

Nearly 8,000 migrants have landed in Italy since the start of the year -- double the number from last year over the same period. The highest number of migrants arrived in Lampedusa -- 3,648 people, or three times more than last year.