Hundreds locked in migrant boat’s hold

An infrared camera shot from Guardia di Finanza shows the operation to rescue migrants in the Strait of Sicily on April 19. EPA/Guardia di Finanza

An infrared camera shot from Guardia di Finanza shows the operation to rescue migrants in the Strait of Sicily on April 19. EPA/Guardia di Finanza

Frances D’Emilio, AP

A smuggler’s boat crammed with hundreds of people has overturned off Libya’s coast, causing what could be the Mediterranean’s deadliest known migrant tragedy.

The incident on Sunday has intensified pressure on the European Union to finally meet demands for decisive action.

Italian prosecutors said a Bangladeshi survivor flown to Sicily for treatment told them 950 people were aboard, including hundreds who had been locked in the hold by smugglers. Earlier, authorities said a survivor told them 700 migrants were on board.

It wasn’t immediately clear if they were referring to the same survivor, and Premier Matteo Renzi said Italian authorities were ‘not in a position to confirm or verify’ the death toll.

Eighteen ships joined the rescue effort, but only 28 survivors and 24 bodies were pulled from the water by nightfall, Renzi said.

These small numbers make more sense if hundreds of people were locked in the hold, because with so much weight down below, ‘surely the boat would have sunk,’ said General Antonino Iraso, of the Italian Border Police, which has deployed boats in the operation.

Prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said a survivor from Bangladesh described the situation on the fishing boat to prosecutors who interviewed him in a hospital.

The man said about 300 people were in the hold when the fishing boat overturned, and that about 200 women and dozens of children also were on board.

Salvi stressed that there was no confirmation yet of the man’s account and that the investigation was ongoing.

Iraso said the sea in the area is too deep for divers, suggesting that the final toll may never be known. The sea off Libya runs as deep as five kilometres or more.

Demands for decisive action were going mainstream, as authorities from France, Spain, Germany and Britain joined calls for a unified response.

‘Europe can do more and Europe must do more,’ said Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament.

‘It is a shame and a confession of failure how many countries run away from responsibility and how little money we provide for rescue missions.’

Europe must mobilise ‘more ships, more overflights by aircraft,’ French President Francois Hollande told French TV Canal + on Sunday. ‘Words won’t do anymore,’ Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, told a political rally.

The 20-metre vessel may have overturned because migrants rushed to one side of the craft late Saturday night when they saw an approaching Portuguese-flagged container ship, the King Jacob, which was sent to the area by Italy’s Coast Guard. The ship’s crew ‘immediately deployed rescue boats, gangway, nets and life rings,’ a spokesman for its owner said.

Renzi praised the container ship for quickly responding on what would become its fifth recent rescue operation.

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