At least three migrants have died after a fire broke out on a boat carrying around 20 people during rescue operations off the southern coast of Italy, police and health officials have said.
Another five migrants have been injured and taken to hospitals, health authorities in the Italian port city of Crotone said on Sunday, adding that two of them were in a serious condition.
Two police officers were hurt as they tried to steer the migrant ship to safety, a police commander Emilio Fiora was reported as saying by AdnKronos news agency. He said the ship’s engine caught fire and there was an explosion.
ANSA news agency reported 12 survivors were taken to a migrant reception centre in the city of Crotone.
The migrant vessel originally had 34 people on board, but 13 migrants reached the shore before the Guardia di Finanza – the Italian customs and financial crimes police – intervened to bring it to port, ANSA said.
Italy was previously a major route into Europe for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and other migrants, but numbers fell sharply after a crackdown in Libya on smugglers.
However, there has been a pick-up in 2020 although Rome has closed its ports to migrant boats, saying it is impossible to help migrants due to the coronavirus crisis.
Some 18,000 migrants have reached Italy’s shores so far in 2020, interior ministry official data showed, compared with around 4,900 in the same period in 2019.
The surge in migrant arrivals via sea has sparked protests from politicians representing front line areas.
On the island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost point, Mayor Toto Martello on Sunday announced a “general strike” to protest against the latest mass arrival of sea migrants from North Africa.
He spoke after a fishing boat docked overnight with around 450 people on board, who were greeted by angry protesters, including Angela Maraventano, the local leader of the far-right League party.
“Tomorrow, I will summon representatives of professional organisations on the island. We will declare a general strike, shops will close,” Martello said in a statement.
The mayor chastised Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government for “continuing to maintain a scary silence” about the situation in Lampedusa.
He called for navy boats to be used to intercept migrant vessels and transfer them out of Lampedusa since the local migrant reception centre “is full beyond all limits”.
The president of Sicily, Nello Musumeci, on Facebook urged Conte to call a cabinet meeting to tackle “the [migrant] emergency of the past months, which has become unbearable in the past hours”.
Italy’s interior ministry reacted by saying three more COVID-19 quarantine ferries – adding to the two already present – were being sent to Lampedusa to host newly-arrived migrants.
One ferry will arrive by Monday, and two more by Wednesday, the ministry said, adding that 328 migrants would be transferred from the island between late Sunday and Monday morning.