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Deadliest Mediterranean tragedy forces EU response rethink

AFP I Survivors of a migrant boat shipwreck speak with members of medical staff before get off from an Italian warship at the Catania harbor on May 13, 2014

EU ministers are holding crisis talks Monday after the weekend’s drowning of more than 700 migrants off the Libyan coast sparked international condemnation over the bloc's inadequate response to the problem.


Foreign ministers meeting at a previously scheduled meeting in Luxembourg Monday are set to discuss the latest disaster – described as the deadliest Mediterranean boat tragedy in recent times – with EU president Donald Tusk expected to call for a special summit on the issue.

The call for a summit was led by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who noted that trafficking was "a plague in our continent" and bemoaned the lack of European solidarity at a press conference Sunday.

Italy is one of the European countries worst affected by the flood of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from conflict-torn Libya and has frequently expressed frustration over the EU’s failure to collectively respond to the crisis.

Triton under scrutiny

An Italian navy search-and-rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum was suspended late last year after Italy failed to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of nine million euros a month amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.

Mare Nostrum has been replaced by a much smaller EU-run operation called Triton.

French President François Hollande earlier Sunday also called for a special summit, saying Europe "must act" against the growing catalogue of mass drownings of migrants attempting to reach its shores, and calling for closer surveillance of the routes used by people smugglers.

Reports of migrants locked in the hold

Survivor accounts of the latest Mediterranean disaster varied, with the Italian coastguard saying that the capsized boat had a capacity for “hundreds'' of people. 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 was not immediately clear if they were referring to the same survivor with
Italian officials noting that they were “not in a position to confirm or verify'' how many were on board when the boat set out from Libya.

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

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 Gen. Antonino Iraso, of the Italian Border Police, which has deployed boats in the operation.

Prosecutor Giovanni Salvi told The Associated Press by phone from the city of Catania that 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, locked in there by the smugglers, when the vessel set out. He said that of the 950 who set out aboard the doomed boat, some 200 were women and several dozen were children.

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 5 kilometres or more.

The 20-metre (66-foot) 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 coastguard. The ship's crew “immediately deployed rescue boats, gangway, nets and life rings,'' a spokesman for its owner said.

‘Fortress Europe’ under fire

The latest tragedy has sparked international criticism, with rights groups accusing the EU of "closing its borders" with resurgent right-wing groups across the 28-member bloc turning up the anti-immigration rhetoric.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the latest tragedy is an urgent reminder “of the critical need for a robust search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean,'' in a statement released late Sunday by his spokesman. Ban said the Mediterranean has become "the world's deadliest route used by asylum seekers and migrants.''

“There are fears there could be hundreds of dead,'' Pope Francis said in St. Peter's Square, lending his moral authority to the political calls for action by urging “the international community to act decisively and promptly, to prevent similar tragedies from occurring again.''

Desperate migrants fleeing war, persecution and conflict in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have long tried to reach Europe. Libya has increasingly become a more frequent point of departure in the years since rival militias, tribal factions and other political forces destabilized the country following the bloody end of Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship.

Malta and Italy are closest to the Libyan coast, and have received the brunt of a migrant tide that carried 219,000 people from Africa to Europe last year. Some 3,500 are known to have died along the way, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement Sunday.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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