ROME (AP) -- Survivors of another deadly Mediterranean crossing reported Wednesday that some 300 migrants were unaccounted-for in the frigid open seas, as the U.N. refugee agency and other aid groups sharply criticized the new EU rescue operation as inefficient for saving lives.
The suspected deaths add to the 29 reported earlier in the week by the Italian coast guard, which said the victims had died of hypothermia during the voyage that began Sunday in Libya, where most smuggling operations originate.
Some of the migrants that were rescued at sea sit on a bus in the harbor of Lampedusa Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. At least 29 migrants have died from hypothermia while traveling from North Africa to Italy aboard a smuggler's life raft in heavy seas, amid a surge of migrants making the dangerous sea crossing despite the harsh winter conditions. The victims were among 106 people packed aboard an inflatable life raft who were trying to cross the Mediterranean in rough seas and freezing temperatures, Italian coast guard Cmdr. Filippo Marini said Monday. (AP Photo/Mauro Buccarello)
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said survivors reported that four boats had left together Sunday from Libya and that 107 people had survived. After initially confirming 203 deaths from three boats, it confirmed the fourth and raised the toll to around 300.
The agency's spokeswoman in Italy, Carlotta Sami, said the victims had been "swallowed up by the waves," the youngest a child of 12.
UNHCR, Save the Children and other aid groups blasted the new EU-backed rescue patrol as ineffective. The European Union took over Mediterranean patrols after Italy phased out its robust Mare Nostrum operation in November. It had been launched in 2013 after 360 migrants died off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
But the EU's Triton mission only operates a few miles off Europe's coast - its job is to patrol Europe's borders - whereas Mare Nostrum patrols took Italian rescue ships up close to Libya's coast.
"The Triton operation doesn't have as its principal mandate saving human lives, and thus cannot be the response that is urgently needed," Laurens Jolles, the head of the U.N. agency for southern Europe, said in a statement.
Save The Children called for the EU to urgently meet to restart Mare Nostrum "or another rescue system that has the mandate, the capacity and means to prevent other tragedies."
The U.N. and other rescue organizations had long said the less-robust EU mission would result in lost lives since the patrols are so far from Libya's coast. Critics of the Mare Nostrum, though, had said the Italian patrols so close to Libya only encouraged migrants to take the risk.
The UNHCHR says the recent deaths confirm that there is no deterrent effect from a less-robust operation. In January, 3,528 migrants reached Italy, up by two-thirds from 2,171 in the first month of 2014, a year that brought 170,100 migrants to Italy's shores.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, speaking on Sky TG24, said the aim should be to "Europeanize" the Mare Nostrum operation and "not take a step back in our humanitarian commitment or ability to confront the problem."
In his weekly general audience Wednesday, Pope Francis called for more solidarity "so that no one is left without rescue."