PARIS -- France's interior minister said four suspected traffickers were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of being linked to a deadly migrant boat sinking in the English Channel that killed at least 31 people.
Two of the suspects appeared in court Wednesday, and all four are suspected of a link to the sunken boat, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told reporters in the French port city of Calais.
The regional prosecutor opened an investigation into aggravated manslaughter after the sinking, the deadliest to date in the channel.
Darmanin said 34 people were believed to have been on the boat. Authorities found 31 bodies and two survivors. One person appeared to be missing.
"Strong emotion after the drama of numerous dead in the sinking of a boat of migrants in the channel," Darmanin tweeted. He slammed migrant smuggling networks that organize such journeys.
The nationalities of the travelers was not released. People fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sudan have been among those gathered along towns in northern France seeking to cross to Britain.
A French-British operation to search for survivors was still underway Wednesday evening.
Darmanin noted other deadly incidents in the past and lashed out at "criminal traffickers" driving thousands of people to risk the crossing.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson convened a meeting of the government's crisis committee, and France's interior minister rushed to see the survivors in a Calais hospital. The two governments have long been at odds over how to prevent the increasingly dangerous migrant crossings, with each side blaming the other for not doing enough.
Johnson said he was "shocked, appalled and deeply saddened."
A French naval boat spotted several bodies in the water about 2 p.m. and retrieved an unknown number of dead and injured, including some who were unconscious, a maritime authority spokesperson said.
Three French patrol boats were joined by a French helicopter and a British helicopter in searching the area, according to the French maritime agency for the region.
"Traffickers are assassins," said Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the ports of Calais and Boulogne. "We were waiting for something like this to happen."
While deaths are occasionally reported on the crossing, such a large number of people losing their lives in one boat is rare.
The number of migrants using small boats to cross the channel has grown sharply this year, despite the high risks that are worsening in autumn weather. A number of people are also believed to have reached Britain in small boats Wednesday.
More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey in small boats this year -- three times the total for the whole of 2020.
With changeable weather, cold seas and heavy maritime traffic, the crossing is dangerous for the inflatables and other small boats that men, women and children squeeze into.
French and British authorities have picked up thousands of migrants off both the French and British coasts in recent weeks in scores of rescue operations.
"How many more times must we see people lose their life trying to reach safety in the U.K. because of the woeful lack of safe means to do so?" said Tom Davies, Amnesty International U.K.'s refugee and migrant rights campaign manager.
"We desperately need a new approach to asylum, including genuine Anglo-French efforts to devise safe asylum routes to avoid such tragedies happening again," he said.
Johnson said more needed to be done to "break the business model of the gangsters who are sending people to sea in this way."