At least one person has been killed and hundreds more remain trapped after an Italian ferry with almost 500 people on board caught fire off the Greek island of Corfu, the Italian Navy has confirmed.

About 160 people have been rescued so far, while Italian and Greek helicopter crews prepared to work through the night to airlift passengers in pairs off a burning ferry adrift in the Adriatic Sea.

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 on Sunday.

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

The evacuation was being carried out 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.

Bad weather

Italian navy spokesman Riccardo Rizzotto said four helicopters were already at the scene and the ship's captain had told coastguards that the ferry was now drifting towards the Albanian coast.

"The weather conditions are so bad we need an extraordinary level of support, which is effectively what is being put in place," he said.

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.

The Norman Atlantic had left the Greek port of Patras at 05:30am (03:30 GMT) and had been heading to the Italian port of Ancona when the fire broke out.

Source: Agencies