Italian and Maltese naval vessels have pulled 34 bodies from the Mediterranean sea where a boat packed with 250 migrants capsized off Malta near the Italian island of Lampedusa, leaving at least 50 people dead.

Officials said on Saturday they had rescued 206 people from the vessel which sank on Friday as the migrants were trying to enter Europe.

A rescue ship was dispatched to help another boat in distress, the Italian navy said.

Friday's disaster came just over a week after at least 339 people drowned when a boat sank less than a kilometre from the tiny island between Sicily and Tunisia which has become the focal point of a growing migrant crisis in southern Europe.

The victims in Friday’s accident included women and children.

Speaking about the latest disaster, Joseph Muscat, Malta's prime minister, said the Mediterranean was in danger of becoming a "cemetery" for migrants desperate to reach European shores.

Many migrant boats, often packed with people from North Africa looking for a better life in Europe, have capsized on the island of Lampedusa, spilling passengers into the deep waters.

Driven to shelter

Exhausted after a 10-hour journey from the wreck site, about 143 survivors arrived in Valetta on Saturday morning on board a Maltese naval vessel. They were helped onto buses to be driven to shelters.

"This morning first group of immigrants mainly from Syria arrived from Valletta, 147 in total. Situation is this: families here, accompanied minors, fathers who lost wives and children. Some might be in boat in Sicily," Kurt Farrugia, a Maltese government spokesman, said.

"We’re in touch with Italians to see if family members are on another boat. Maltese army and police are taking care of the operation."

"They speak very little English but some told me they were Syrian," an emergency worker told AFP news agency.

Fifty-six more survivors were being escorted to Porto Empedocle in Sicily on an Italian naval vessel. Another nine were airlifted to Lampedusa, including a couple with a nine-month-old-baby whose three-year-old brother drowned, emergency services said.

The accidents have prompted the EU to call for sea patrols to cope with the flood of migrants knocking on its doors.

Enrico Letta, Italy's prime minister, called the latest tragedy "a new and dramatic confirmation of the state of emergency".

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies