ROME - Five people were found dead in a rickety boat off Italy’s southernmost tip which was carrying around 60 immigrants, the Italian coast guard said Saturday, adding that a rescue mission was under way. “The boat is carrying around 60 people, who appear to be from sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, five among them were found dead,” Giuseppe Cannarile, a lieutenant with the coast guard at Lampedusa island told AFP. “There is a health emergency aboard, some of the immigrants are in a serious condition,” said Cannarile, who added that there were two pregnant women among the passengers.

“We received an emergency call for help from the boat around 3:00 am (0200 GMT) this morning, and the coast guard patrol boats set off immediately to find them. They were about 80 miles from the coast,” he said.

The immigrants had called for help via a satellite phone after days at sea.

The most seriously ill were transferred onto patrol boats, while one was air-lifted off the boat by helicopter, Italian media reported.

On Friday, a boat arrived on Lampedusa with 54 illegal immigrants — including four children — on board, who said they had set sail from Libya.

About 60,000 people landed in Italy in 2011, according to the UN refugee agency. Many were Africans who began fleeing for Lampedusa — which lies closer to north Africa than to mainland Italy — when the conflict in Libya began last year.

Fears are that improvements in the weather could encourage a new wave of immigrants and refugees to attempt the dangerous crossing soon, especially with ongoing civil unrest in several areas.

Aid agencies have called on Rome to prepare the refugee centre on Lampedusa before an emergency hits.

The port on the tiny island was declared “unsafe” in September 2011, after rioting Tunisian migrants angered at their long detention in cramped conditions set fire to the island’s reception centre.