The captain of the migrant boat that sank off the coast of Lampedusa last Thursday has been formally arrested on charges of multiple murders, causing a shipwreck and aiding clandestine immigration.
Bensalem Khaled, a 35-year-old Tunisian from the town of Sfax, was transferred by Italian police from the immigrant reception centre of Lampedusa to the prison in Agrigento in Sicily on Tuesday.
Coast Guard Commander Filippo Marini said another 18 bodies were recovered from within the ship’s hold on Tuesday, while one was spotted by a helicopter floating near the wreck, bringing the total death toll to 250.
Marini said the search would continue as long as weather allows. Just 155 migrants, most if not all from Eritrea, survived the shipwreck.
Survivors said there were some 500 people on board when the ship capsized and sank in sight of land.
A disproportionate number of the dead are women: So far the bodies of 75 women have been recovered, while only six of the survivors were female. Seven of the dead are children.
The EU’s executive will on Tuesday push for extra resources to launch sea patrols to cope with the flood of refugees knocking at Europe’s doors in the aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedy.
The EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said as she went into talks with the 28-nation bloc’s home affairs ministers that she would propose “a big Frontex operation right across the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain for a big save and rescue operation”.
Frontex is the agency set up by the European Union in 2004 to police the bloc’s borders against illegal migration.
But the Warsaw-based agency, which coordinates and develops border management and joint operations, has seen its budget fall over the past three years and relies on donations from member states for ships, helicopters and other equipment.
The shipwreck off Lampedusa last week is expected to dominate Tuesday’s talks between the ministers.
Italy has appealed to EU states for help in coping with the refugees washing up on its shore and wants migration issues to be put on the agenda of summit talks in Brussels at the end of the month.
Italy says 30,000 migrants have arrived so far this year – more than four times the number from last year – and complains that other nations, particularly in wealthier northern Europe, should share the burden.
Frontex is reported to have saved 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean over the last two years.
Due to crisis-era belt-tightening its budget has slipped from $160m in 2011 to $90m in 2012 and $85m this year.
Meanwhile in Italian waters, a Danish and a Panamanian boat respectively saved 141 refugees from Syria heading for Sicily, and 263 Syrians and Palestinians whose boat was in met trouble 100km off the Sicilian coast.