Italian prosecutors have charged a Tunisian captain of an overcrowded migrant boat that sunk off the Libyan coast with multiple manslaughter.
The captain of the vessel and a Syrian, allegedly a member of the ship’s crew, were taken from a group of 27 survivors who arrived in the Sicilian port of Catania on Monday evening.
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“We carried out two arrest warrants of suspected traffickers, the captain of the ship that capsized and a member of the crew. We charged them both with facilitating illegal immigration and the captain was also to be charged with multiple manslaughter,” prosecutor Rocco Liguori said.
The charges were announced as more details emerged of the fatal incident.
Giovanni Salvi, another Italian prosecutor, said: “The migrants were crushed inside this fishing boat … A few hundred migrants were forced into the hold, at the lowest level, and they were locked in and prevented from coming out. Another several hundred were closed into the second level, while on the top, under a cover, there were another hundred migrants.”
The Italian coastguard managed to retrieve 24 bodies from the water near the island of Malta but the vast majority went down with the sunken boat.
“We can say that 800 are dead,” Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy, said on Tuesday, citing the survivors’ accounts of the deadly crossing.
Those who escaped with their lives described to officials the moment the trawler carrying them capsized after a Portuguese merchant ship approached the vessel, causing a stampede.
“There were a little over 800 people on board, including children aged between 10 and 12. There were Syrians, about 150 Eritreans, Somalians… They had left Tripoli at about 8am on Saturday,” Sami said.
The survivors hailed from Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Somalia, Eritrea and Bangladesh, she added. Most were taken to nearby holding centres while one survivor was taken to hospital in Catania, on Sicily’s east coast.
‘No more excuses’
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini had unveiled plans earlier on Monday to tackle the growing migrant crisis after telling member states they had “no more excuses” not to act.
More than 11,000 migrants have been rescued by Italian authorities since the middle of last week alone and current trends suggest last year’s total of 170,000 landing in Italy is likely to be exceeded in 2015.
Unveiling a 10-point action plan, Mogherini said the EU had to live up to its humanitarian values and commitments towards migrants, adding: “To send them back is another way of killing them.”
First on the list, ministers agreed the current EU border surveillance mission Triton should be increased to extend its range and capabilities on the bloc’s southern flank.
Triton replaced Italy’s own Mare Nostrum mission, which Rome scrapped late last year in protest that its EU partners would not share the burden.
The EU will also try to capture or destroy people-smuggling boats and increase cooperation across the board, the European Commission said.
The bloc will also offer a “voluntary pilot project on resettlement, providing a number of places to persons in need of protection”, a key but small step forward in spreading the problem.
Up to now, countries relatively untouched by the problem had objected to this form of burden sharing, however small.
Diplomats said there could be 5,000 places available but the commission gave no figure.