Saving migrants from one of the shipwrecks that have left dozens dead or missing off Italy's shores involved walking through bodies to find barely alive survivors, the NGO captain involved in one of the rescues said on Tuesday.

One boat with 51 survivors and 10 bodies was intercepted about 90 kilometres south of the island of Lampedusa, while another was spotted about 200 kilometres east of the southern Italian region of Calabria.

Eleven survivors from the second shipwreck and the body of a woman were taken ashore on Monday, and aid groups said 64 people, including 26 children, were unaccounted for. The Italian coast guard recovered three more bodies at sea on Tuesday.

Captain Ingo Werth of German aid group RESQSHIP, which operates the "Nadir" rescue boat, led the first rescue in the early hours of Monday, picking up the 51 survivors from a "totally overcrowded wooden boat," he told Reuters.

Before leaving, his team inspected the lower deck and found what seemed to be about a dozen bodies. A medical officer then said, "There's a guy who's breathing, he makes some noise, I hear some noise."

Wearing gas masks, crew members went below to pick up the man and take him to safety. Another survivor was found in a second inspection, but getting him out, with the help of a nurse, was more complicated.

"The (migrants') boat was almost capsizing and so it was a potential grave (for rescuers)," said Werth.

The captain, accompanied by a nurse, returned on the deck of the wooden boat, and managed to save the man below by pulling him through a hole made above his head using an axe and a hammer.

"There was that much life left in both of them", Werth said about the survivors, using a hand gesture to signify they were close to death. He said the body temperature on one was below 32 degrees.

The pair has been airlifted to a hospital in Palermo and are recovering, he added.

The two shipwrecks have confirmed the central Mediterranean's reputation as one of the world's most dangerous migration routes. According to UN data, more than 23,500 migrants have died or gone missing in its waters since 2014.

According to RESQSHIP, the migrants picked up south of Lampedusa had set off from the Libyan port of Zuwarah and spent two days at sea. They told rescuers half of the passengers were from Bangladesh, with others from Pakistan, Syria and Egypt.

The migrants from the other shipwreck off Calabria set sail from Turkey, spent eight days at sea, and came from Iran, Syria and Iraq, according to statements from UN agencies and the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity.

Survivors are "very confused" and don't know "who among their relatives is alive or dead at sea. Entire families have been destroyed. Some have lost a wife, a child, a husband, a friend or a grandchild", MSF staffer Cecilia Momi said.
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