A rescue operation is under way in Greek waters for an Italian ferry carrying 466 people that has caught fire, according to Greek officials.

The Norman Atlantic, carrying 222 vehicles, 411 passengers and 55 crew, was 44 nautical miles northwest of the island of Corfu when it sent a distress signal after a fire started in the lower deck, Greek coast guard officials said.

Greek vessels rushed to give assistance after picking up its distress signal, the coastguard added.

Around 55 passengers have been transferred to one ship, while 150 others were in a lifeboat, according to the coast guard.

The evacuation of the ferry has been occurring in difficult conditions, with rescued passengers saying gale-force winds were lashing the vessel.

Seven vessels were next to the ferry to take passengers on board. Two Greek firefighting ships were on their way, while Italian and Greek aircraft circled overhead.

The fire was said to have broken out in the ferry's parking bay, which can hold some 200 vehicles, the AFP news agency said.

Greek television network Mega said there were tankers holding olive oil in the bay.

Defence Minister Nikos Dendias told the channel that Italian authorities had responded to a Greek plea for assistance and had now taken charge of the rescue operation.

"Our shoes were melting while we were in the reception area," one rescued passenger told Mega.

The Norman Atlantic had left the Greek port of Patras at 05:30am (03:30 GMT) with 411 passengers and 55 crew on board and had been heading to the Italian port of Ancona when the fire took hold.

Source: Agencies