Rome -

Italian and Nato rescue crews searched the waters off a small Mediterranean island on Friday for passengers of a migrant boat that apparently ran into trouble as it neared Italy. Italian media reported that dozens of people may be missing.

Commander Filippo Marini of the Italian coast guard said 54 people had been accounted for by early on Friday, all Tunisian and all in good health.

The ANSA news agency said they were rescued from the sea as well as on the uninhabited islet of Lampione west of the island of Lampedusa. ANSA said the original call for help received by port officials in Palermo, Sicily, spoke of more than 100 people on board.

Port officials told Italian state radio on Friday that initial SOS reports are frequently inflated, but that the search was nevertheless continuing.

ANSA said there was no trace of the boat, which according to the initial reports was an old, 10-meter wooden vessel.

Tens of thousands of clandestine migrants, many aboard smugglers' boats, head to Italian shores each year. Lampedusa, which is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, is their frequent destination.

Those without jobs awaiting them or who are ineligible for asylum are sent back to their homelands.

Amnesty International has reported that in 2011 alone, at least 1 500 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe. - Sapa-AP