Two held over Mediterranean migrant ship deaths

PROSECUTORS are building a case against the men blamed for the Mediterranean’s worst migrant disaster as European Union leaders mull a new plan to stop the traffickers.

A boat transporting migrants arrives in the port of Messina after a rescue operation at sea on April 18, 2015 in Sicily. Picture: Getty
A boat transporting migrants arrives in the port of Messina after a rescue operation at sea on April 18, 2015 in Sicily. Picture: Getty

The United Nations refugee agency said it believes more than 800 people drowned when a boat packed with migrants trying to reach Europe sank on Saturday.

Officials boarded the rescue ship that took the survivors to Sicily and arrested the Tunisian captain and a Syrian crew member of the ship that capsized. They were named as Mohammed Ali Malek and Mahmud Bikhit respectively.

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They are accused of illegal immigration charges and the captain was also accused of reckless homicide.

A spokesman for the Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it had finished interviewing most of the 28 survivors. Adrian Edwards said the UNHCR believes more than 800 died, “making this the deadliest incident in the Mediterranean that we have recorded”. Only 24 bodies were recovered.

The survivors were taken to a migrant holding centre in Catania and were “very tired, very shocked, silent”, according to Flavio Di Giacomo of the International Organisation of Migration.

Mr Edwards said about 350 of those aboard were believed to have been Eritreans. Others included people from Syria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Bangladesh.

He added about 1,300 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean in April, taking the year’s death toll to at least 1,776. The coastguard said it saved 638 migrants in six rescue operations on Monday alone.

Other rescue operations were taking place yesterday, including one in which two merchant ships were asked to help.

The weekend deaths have jolted the European Union into taking action, with Italy demanding that it not be left alone to shoulder the burden of rescues and that the EU focuses on preventing the boats from leaving Libya in the first place.

Ahead of an emergency EU summit tomorrow, foreign and interior ministers approved a ten-point plan at a meeting in Luxembourg that calls for the beefing-up and expansion of the EU border patrol mission, and a “systematic effort to capture and destroy” smugglers’ boats. It calls for closer law-enforcement coordination to trace smugglers’ funding, which prosecutors have said often evades traditional bank transfers in favour of informal Arab “hawala” networks, in which migrants’ relatives in Europe pay local brokers for each leg of the journey.

Italian premier Matteo Renzi said: “We are facing an organised criminal activity that is making lots of money, but above all ruining many lives.”