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Death toll in Italian migrant shipwreck rises to 61

The death toll in a migrant shipwreck near the southern Italian coast has risen to 61, as searches continue for missing people.

The wooden sailing boat carrying migrants to Europe had sailed from Turkey and crashed early on Sunday against rocks near Steccato di Cutro, a seaside resort on the eastern coast of Calabria.

A total of 61 people had been found dead so far, while 80 were rescued, Manuela Curra, a provincial government official, told Reuters on Monday.

The vessel was carrying people from Afghanistan, Iran and several other countries, and the victims included 12 children, authorities said earlier.

Based on reports from survivors, authorities believe 180 to 200 people had been on board the vessel, Curra said.

One survivor was arrested on migrant trafficking charges on Sunday, but the Guardia di Finanza customs police said they were finalising the arrest of two more people on suspicion of co-operating with the alleged smuggler.

Charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), operating on the ground, said they were assisting several people who had lost relatives in the shipwreck.

"We have cases of children who became orphans, such as a 12-year-old Afghan boy who lost his entire family, a family of nine people, including four siblings, parents and other close relatives," said Sergio Di Dato, from MSF.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Monday said that more than two dozen Pakistanis were believed to have been among those who drowned.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expressed "deep sorrow" for the deaths. Blaming human traffickers, she vowed to block migrant sea departures to prevent such disasters.

Her right-wing administration has taken a hard line on migration since taking office in October, mostly by restricting the activities of migrant rescue charities with tough new laws that won final parliamentary approval on Thursday.

Meloni accuses charities of encouraging migrants to make the dangerous sea journey to Italy, acting as so-called "pull factors".

Charities reject this, saying migrants set off regardless of whether rescue boats are in the vicinity.

In a separate statement, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said it was essential to stop sea crossings that he said offered migrants the "illusory mirage of a better life" in Europe, enriched traffickers, and caused such tragedies.

Pope Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina and long a vocal advocate for migrants' rights, said he was praying for everyone caught up in the shipwreck.

Italy is one of the main landing points for migrants trying to enter Europe by sea, with many seeking to travel on to richer northern European nations.

The so-called central Mediterranean route is known as one of the world's most dangerous.

The United Nations Missing Migrants Project has registered more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014.

More than 220 have died or disappeared this year, it estimates.