Fuel fumes in an overcrowded smuggling boat apparently killed at least 40 people, according to Italian navy rescuers who saved some 320 aboard the vessel on Saturday.

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ROME — At least 40 migrants died Saturday in the hold of an overcrowded smuggling boat in the Mediterranean Sea north of Libya, apparently killed by fuel fumes, before some 320 others aboard were saved by the Italian navy, the rescue ship’s commander said.

Migrants by the tens of thousands are braving the perilous journey across the Mediterranean this year, hoping to reach Europe and be granted asylum. They are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Cmdr. Massimo Tozzi, speaking from the navy ship Cigala Fulgosi while the rescue was still ongoing, told RaiNews24 said the cause of death “appears to be from inhaling exhaust fumes.”

When rescuers stepped aboard the boat, the bodies of migrants were “lying in water, fuel, human excrement” in the hold, Tozzi said.

Tozzi said the survivors included three children and 45 women, some of whom “were crying for their husbands (and) their children who died in the crossing.”

The navy said that the survivors were later transferred to a Norwegian ship with the Frontex mission, a European effort to save migrant lives in the Mediterranean. The survivors were being brought to a southern Italian port.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, migrants on a Turkish beach scuffled over places on one inflatable dinghy and frantically bailed out another to keep it from sinking on a dramatic night that showed their desperation to reach the Greek island of Kos — and the safety of Europe.

Turkish authorities reported that 2,791 migrants have been caught in the Aegean Sea in the past five days alone, most of them Syrians.

Kos is only 2.5 miles from Turkey at its closest point, its twinkling lights at night an irresistible beacon to those fleeing war or poverty.

An estimated 2,300 migrants have died at sea this year trying to make the crossing from Africa to Italy, according to figures released Friday by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The Libya-to-Italy route is by far the deadliest. The exact death toll will never be known, as some smuggling boats are believed to have gone down at sea without rescuers being aware of them.

The number of migrants trying to reach Europe by sea is on track to hit a record this year, according to the IOM. Greece has reported 134,988 arrivals from Turkey this year, it said.

Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told a news conference that as of Saturday, 103,000 migrants had been rescued at sea and brought to Italy in operations coordinated by the Italian coast guard. Along with a few other migrants landing in Spain and Malta, that means more than 243,000 people have crossed so far this year, compared with 219,000 for all of 2014.

In Libya, smugglers have taken advantage of chaos and fighting among the North African nation’s tribes and militias, some loyal to the Islamic State group.

The violence escalated after the 2011 ouster and killing of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. No unity government has emerged, and rival factions now rule different sections of Libya.

“Either the international community is able to resolve the Libyan question, or today’s (migrant tragedy) won’t be the last,” Alfano said.