Updated 2.35pm, adds video

Italy's coastguard has recovered the dead bodies of eight people, including a pregnant woman, from Maltese search and rescue waters, according to Italian media.

According to survivors, the bodies of two people are still missing. They said a four-month-old baby had also died.

The infant's grieving mother allegedly put the child's body in the sea and a man who jumped in to recover it had drowned, ANSA and La Repubblica reported survivors as saying.

The operation. Video: Guardia Costiera

The baby's mother is among the dead people found in the hull of the boat they were travelling in.

Rescuers found the dead people - five men and three women - late on Thursday, Filippo Mannino, the mayor of the island of Lampedusa, told AFP. A further 42 survivors on board were brought ashore, he said.

The rescued people were soaked through and those who perished were believed to have died of cold and hunger, according to Italian media reports, citing translators who spoke to the survivors.

The migrants told translators they had sailed from Sfax in Tunisia in the early hours of Saturday.

Questions have been sent to the Armed Forces of Malta and the Home Affairs Ministry, but no replies were received by the time of writing.

The deaths come as Italy's new right-wing government sparred with the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights agency, over its crackdown on charity rescue vessels.

Nearly 5,000 migrants have landed in Italy since the start of the year, according to the interior ministry, up from just over 3,000 in the same period last year and 1,000 in 2021.

Charity vessels only rescue a small percentage - around 10 per cent - of migrants brought to safety in Italy, while most are saved by Italian coastguard or navy vessels.

But Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's government has accused charity ships of acting as a pull factor and encouraging people traffickers.

Hinder life-saving assistance

A decree law brought in at the start of January tightens the rules, obliging charity ships to only perform one rescue at a time.

They have also been routinely ordered to take survivors to ports in northern rather than southern Italy.

Those journeys are much longer and more costly and the charities warn it reduces their abilities to help those in need and will lead to more deaths.

In a letter to Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi last week, the Council of Europe warned the decree law "could hinder the provision of life-saving assistance by NGOs in the Central Mediterranean".

It might also "be at variance with Italy's obligations under human rights and international law", Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic wrote.

In his reply on Wednesday, Piantedosi said the decree was not putting lives at risk.

Sign up to our free newsletters

Get the best updates straight to your inbox:
Please select at least one mailing list.

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing.