By Steve Scherer and Isla Binnie
ROME (Reuters) - More than 30 migrants, mostly toddlers, drowned on Wednesday when about 200 people without life jackets fell from a boat into the sea off the Libyan coast before they could be hauled into waiting rescue boats.
Rescue group MOAS, which operates in the Mediterranean, said its staff were pulling bodies out of the water. "Most are toddlers," co-founder Chris Catrambone said on Twitter.
A total of 34 dead bodies were found in the water, and around 1,800 people rescued from four rubber dinghies and six wooden boats, the coastguard said later in a statement.
British and Spanish navy ships, aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF), three merchant ships and a tug boat joined MOAS and the Italian coast guard and navy to carry out the rescues.
The ill-fated boat probably tipped because of a combination of weather conditions and the fact the migrants suddenly crowded to one side, sending just under half of the 500 on board into the water, the coastguard said.
More than 1,300 people have died this year on the world's most dangerous crossing for migrants, after boarding flimsy boats to flee poverty and war across Africa and the Middle East.
Last Friday, more than 150 disappeared at sea, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday, citing testimony collected after survivors disembarked in Italy.
In the past week, more than 7,000 migrants have been plucked from boats in international waters off the western coast of Libya, where people smugglers operate with impunity.
Despite efforts by Italy and the European Union to train and equip the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli and its coastguard to fight traffickers, migrants are arriving in record numbers.
Disputes are also brewing between the Libyan coastguard and aid groups. MSF and SOS Mediteranee said officials from the Tripoli-based force had boarded a migrant boat during a rescue on Tuesday, robbing the migrants and firing shots into the air.
More than 60 people fell into the water in the ensuing panic, but no one was injured as life jackets had already been given out, MSF and SOS Mediteranee said, broadly corroborating an earlier report by humanitarian group Jugend Rettet.
"Italian and European authorities should not be providing support to the Libyan coastguard," MSF representative Annemarie Loof said. "This support is further endangering people's lives."
GROUP OF SEVEN SUMMIT
Italy is hosting a meeting of the world's seven major industrialized nations in Sicily on Friday and Saturday, and is pushing the group, which includes the United States, to put migration, Libya's stabilization and African development at the top of the agenda.
"The tragedy of children dying in the Mediterranean is a wake-up call to leaders meeting in Sicily," the United Nations Children's Fund Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth, who is traveling to the summit, said in a statement.
Authorities have diverted rescue vessels to the mainland from their usual ports in Sicily during the summit, keeping the migration crisis out of sight but not out of mind.
More than 50,000 migrants have been rescued at sea and brought to Italy so far this year, a 46 percent increase on the same period of last year, the Interior Ministry said this week.
Most rescues take place just outside the 12-mile mark that separates Libyan territory from international waters.
It is a busy stretch of sea where humanitarian vessels and the Libyan Coast Guard are joined by scavengers hoping to recover abandoned migrant boats and their engines.
After Tuesday's skirmish, Jugend Rettet said the Libyans towed two migrant boats back to shore while humanitarian groups brought more than 1,000 on board.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Isla Binnie; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Hugh Lawson)