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 / Updated  / Source: NBC News

The captain of a ship crammed with migrants which capsized leaving hundreds missing has been charged with manslaughter, Italian prosecutors said Tuesday.

Only 24 bodies have been recovered from Sunday's disaster in Libyan waters south of Italy. Survivors have told rescuers there were up to 950 migrants aboard the doomed vessel — making the incident possibly the worst-ever tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Tunisian captain of the boat — 27-year-old Mohammed Ali Malek — was arrested along with a Syrian crew member, 25-year-old Mahmud Bikhit.

Mohammed Ali Malek, left, and Mahmud Bikhit wait to disembark from Italian Coast Guard ship Bruno Gregoretti, in Catania, Italy, on Monday.Alessandra Tarantino / AP

Sicilian prosecutors said Tuesday that Malek has been charged with culpable shipwreck, manslaughter and aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Bikhit has been charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigration, the statement from Catania's prosecutors said.

Complete Coverage: Europe's migrant crisis

"It is still not possible to ascertain the precise number of the deceased," the statement added, saying the death toll is likely to be between 400 and 950 people.

There were just 28 survivors of the wreck, according to the International Organization for Migration. The prosecutors' office statement said that "the very low number of survivors could be due to the fact that many people were locked inside the boat."

Prosecutors said they believe two factors contributed to the capsizing: "inaccurate maneuvers" by the captain who ended up colliding with a cargo ship, and because the boat was "so overcrowded it lost balance."

The tragedy — the latest in a long line of disasters in the Mediterranean — has sparked calls for urgent action from the international community to protect the flood of refugees risking their lives aboard rickety craft to make it to Europe.


— Claudio Lavanaga and Cassandra Vinograd