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GENEVA/ROME (Reuters) - Desperate refugees dragged each other under water and drowned in horrifying scenes recounted by survivors of an overladen migrant boat which sank off the coast of Sicily, a senior aid worker said on Thursday.
Up to 250 people, mainly from countries in Africa, are still missing after the boat, believed to have left Libya on Monday, sank in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Jean-Philippe Chauzy, a spokesmen for the International Organisation for Migration, said the boat got into trouble and capsized soon after Italian coast guard rescue vessels arrived.
"The sea was rough and after people went to one side it began taking in water and sank quickly," Chauzy told Reuters.
"People drowned immediately and some non-swimmers clung to those who could swim, taking them down. It is a real horror story."
Italian rescue vessels resumed their search for survivors in the early hours of Thursday but hopes of finding anyone alive were fading quickly.
Wednesday's incident was the most dramatic of its kind for some time but many smaller boats carrying migrants have sunk while attempting to reach southern Europe from Africa, killing unknown numbers of refugees and migrants.
Speaking earlier in parliament, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said a total of 51 people, most from central Africa, had been picked up on Wednesday by rescue vessels which answered a distress signal sent via Maltese authorities.
"The search is continuing but hopes of finding anyone still alive grow weaker by the hour," he said.
Although the boat was in Maltese waters when it got into difficulties, Italian rescue ships were alerted because of a lack of appropriate vessels in Malta, Maroni said.
Survivors were housed in a reception centre in Lampedusa, the southern Italian island at the centre of a recent North African migrant crisis but there was some uncertainty about the number of people on the boat when it sank.
The IOM, which has officials on Lampedusa, said survivors had told them there were 300 on board but Maroni said Italian officials had been told there were 200.
Chauzy said two women among about 40 on board survived the ordeal, including a pregnant woman who has been evacuated to hospital in Palermo, accompanied by her husband.
Some 20 bodies have been recovered in the area, and the search continues but no survivors are expected to be found after more than 30 hours, he added.
Reporting by James Mackenzie and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Louise Ireland