Syrian refugees who survived after their boat capsized off Malta say they were fired on by warring trafficking gangs as they set out on their perilous journey from Libya, the UN refugee agency reported.
Thirty one people were killed and more than 200 people were rescued after the boat capsized a week after another shipwreck left 369 dead, prompting Malta to warn the Mediterranean was turning into a cemetery.
There was a furious fight, screaming on the radio and on the phone with someone who demanded that we return to land, but the captain did not stop.
The boat, carrying up to 400 migrants, mostly Syrians, left the Libyan port of Zwara on Thursday, just 60km from the Tunisian border.
Citing testimonies from some of those who survived the 10-hour crossing, the UNHCR, spoke of "several injured passengers", saying that the shots were fired "perhaps by militiamen who shot to kill".
News agency Ansa said witnesses spoke of two people being killed.
Molhake Al Roarsan, 22, interviewed in Valletta by the newspaper La Stampa , said that three people were injured after being shot in the arms and legs.
He said on Sunday that he thought the shootings were related to a dispute between different groups of traffickers.
"There was a furious fight, screaming on the radio and on the phone with someone who demanded that we return to land, but the captain did not stop," said the Syrian.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called for an investigation into the shooting incident and expressed hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice. He also expressed concern that Syrians fleeing conflict have sought to reach Europe by such a perilous route, calling it "inhumane."
"They escaped bullets and bombs only to perish before they could ever claim asylum,'' he said.
The twin tragedies have prompted the European Union to call for sea patrols to cope with the flood of migrants.