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Italy migrant death toll reaches at least 181

October 6, 2013
Associated Press

LAMPEDUSA, Italy (AP) — An Italian government minister born in Africa watched wordlessly Sunday as soldiers wearing face masks carried body bags containing migrants from her continent who perished when a fishing boat transporting 500 asylum seekers from Eritrea sank within sight of the tiny island of Lampedusa.

Divers recovered 70 more bodies after seas calmed enough to resume search operations after a two-day suspension, increasing the death toll to at least 181. More than 150 others are presumed to be missing, trapped in the wreckage about 50 meters (165 feet) below the surface.

Search operations will continue "as long as the sea is calm and there is light," police Maj. Leonardo Ricci said.

Italy has been receiving signs of solidarity from its European partners. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso plans to visit the island Wednesday. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Europe must act to stem the migrant tragedy, adding that both France and Italy have asked that the subject be placed on the agenda of Tuesday's EU interior ministers' meeting.

"The Mediterranean cannot remain a huge cemetery under the open skies," Fabius said on French TV station iTele.

Congolese-born integration minister Cecile Kyenge watched with the island's mayor as the bodies were lifted from boats on to trucks to be brought to a makeshift morgue at the airport.

"There are no words in front of the dead," Kyenge told reporters later. "They are difficult moments that make us face our responsibilities."

She said it was time for reflection "to prevent new tragedies."

"We cannot deal with this tragedy alone, but together with Europe. We must give answers to those who flee, need protection, and come here for help," Kyenge said.

Earlier, Kyenge visited the survivors at a refugee center in Lampedusa, where she called conditions "shameful." Most of the 155 survivors remain at the island's overcrowded center, many sleeping in the open. Two have been transferred to hospitals in Sicily.

The migrants, mostly from Eritrea, were aboard the 20-meter (65-foot) fishing boat that sank early Thursday after passengers panicked by flames set to draw the attention bolted to one side of the boat, capsizing it. Hundreds were flung into the sea, many who could not swim, while many were trapped in the hull. Survivors told rescuers they were in the sea for three hours; many clung to empty water bottles to stay afloat and some were too weak to grab lifesavers thrown to them.

Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost point and just 70 miles (113 kilometers) from Tunisia, is a frequent destination for migrants trying to reach a safe haven from misery and strife in Africa and the Middle East. Tens of thousands arrive there each year seeking refugee status in Europe.

Survivors of Thursday's tragedy have told authorities that a boat with lights had circled them but did not communicate or offer assistance. A Dutch lawmaker has called for an investigation into reports that a boat did not help the stranded migrants. There is no evidence that people on that boat knew that the fishing vessel was in distress.

They bade farewell Saturday to the 111 deceased fellow travelers who were recovered from the sea on Thursday. Their coffins stood in three long lines in the makeshift morgue at the island's airport, each with a single rose except for four caskets for children topped with a teddy bear.

Laura Boldrini, the speaker of Italy's lower house who attended the ceremony along with a parliamentary delegation, said the survivors showed great dignity in their farewells, and accepted even that the coffins were nameless.

"When the asylum-seekers started to arrive, they started crying, all together, like a song," Boldrini, who used to be the U.N. Refugee Agency's longtime spokeswoman for Italy, told The Associated Press by phone. "There were 150 people all together, crying, but in a very dignified way, and without asking anything of the authorities, not even to know who was in the coffins. It was such a lesson."

Fabius, the French foreign minister, said Europe must boost development aid to countries from where migrants depart and maritime borders must be better controlled, including by EU agency Frontex, in charge of border management.

He also said traffickers must be severely sanctioned, adding: "Those people make their fortunes from deaths."

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Associated Press writer Colleen Barry contributed from Milan and Elaine Ganley from Paris. Andrea Rosa and Oleg Cetinic contributed from Lampedusa, Italy.

 
 

 

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