PALERMO, Italy, April 16 (UPI) -- A group of 12 Christians fleeing from Africa to Italy by boat were thrown overboard by Muslim passengers because of their religion, Italian police said Thursday.
A group of 105 people left Tuesday from Libya in a rubber boat and crossed the Mediterranean Sea en route to Italy. The boat was intercepted by the Italian navy, which transferred the migrants to a Panamanian-flagged ship, which later docked in Palermo.
The 12 Christians from Ghana and Nigeria are feared dead. Other Christians survived the trip, they said, by forming a human chain to resist being tossed off the vessel.
The incident comes the same week a boat carrying about 550 migrants capsized near the Libyan coast. Some 400 of the passengers were feared dead.
Following the incident, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called for a greater rescue capability in the Mediterranean Sea.
"I was deeply shocked when hearing the news that another boat, an overcrowded boat capsized in the Mediterranean and where 400 people died. This only demonstrates how important it is to have a robust rescue-at-sea mechanism, in the central Mediterranean," high commissioner António Guterres said Wednesday
Since Friday more than 7,000 migrants have been rescued from the Mediterranean Sea, according to the European Union.
On April 5, the Italian navy and coast guard rescued up to 1,500 migrants in the same waters over a period of 24 hours.
Each year thousands of people fleeing violence in Africa and the Middle East drown in the Mediterranean while traveling over rough seas on shoddy boats.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean using irregular routes in 2014, of which 3,500 died. Italy alone dealt with about 170,000 such refugees in that time.
"Mare Nostrum" was the name given to Italy's migrant rescue operations, but right-wing politicians expressed concerns about its daily cost and the possibility that Middle Eastern and North African terrorists might make their way into Italy's borders.
Mare Nostrum ended late last year and a smaller EU operation known as "Operation Triton" took over, but U.N. leaders predicted a higher degree of migrant deaths due to lighter efforts.
"Unfortunately Mare Nostrum was never replaced by an equivalent capacity to rescue people, and at the same time the legal avenues for those who need protection to be able to come Europe," Guterres said.
In March an EU official warned that up to a million migrants could leave Libya for Europe in 2015.
Officials say during the first two months of 2015 there has been a 43 percent increase in migrant arrivals in Europe over January and February 2014.
Fred Lambert contributed to this report.