France has called for an urgent meeting of EU countries following a shipwreck tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa, in which hundreds are feared dead. Italy’s coastguard has denied it was too slow to help.
“It’s a terrible tragedy. It is important that European policymakers meet soon to discuss this together,” he told reporters during a visit to the city of Metz.
The 111 coffins of the migrants were lined up in an airport hangar on Saturday, where survivors paid their respects. Up to 500 people were believed to be on the boat that sank less than a kilometer off the coast of Lampedusa in the early hours of Thursday morning. Officials say just 155 people survived, and hundreds are still missing.
Italy’s coastguard has disputed claims that it took 45 minutes to one hour to reach the scene, saying it arrived within 20 minutes of receiving the first call. It has also denied reports it prevented private boats from joining rescue efforts once emergency services had been deployed.
The boat’s 35-year-old Tunisian skipper has been arrested on charges of people smuggling. A spokesman from Tunisia’s interior ministry told the news agency DPA that the boat had set off from Libya, and passed close to the Tunisian coastal town of Sfax, on its way to Lampedusa.
The tiny fishing and tourist island is located halfway between Sicily and Tunisia and over the years has seen tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Africa arriving in its port in unseaworthy boats.
Possible violation of ‘law of the sea’
Meanwhile, a parliamentary delegation visited survivors amid reports that nearby boats may have failed to help those drowning. Failure to assist a fellow vessel is a violation of “the law of the sea.”
“To come to rescue is a duty. Not to come to rescue is a crime,” said Laura Boldrini, the Italian house speaker. Boldrini was previously the UN Refugee Agency spokeswoman in Italy.
Boldrini said the law of the sea requires assistance to anyone in need. Survivors have told authorities that a boat passed without helping, but no vessel has been identified and prosecutors have not yet launched any formal investigations.
Dramatic footage has also emerged of a young Eritrean man being hauled on board a private boat during the rescue.
“You have to search or 480 people are going to die!” he is heard saying in the video, released by Italian TG2 news. “Oh my god!” the man says, after bursting into tears and spitting out sea water.
Some fisherman have spoken of their efforts to rescue the migrants from the shipwreck. Vito Fiorini said he pulled 47 from the sea, some of whom were stripped of their clothing while others were slippery from being covered in gasoline.
Tourist fisherman Marcello Nizza told the news agency AFP he could have “saved more if help had come in time and if they had allowed us to go out again.”
Boldrini said survivors have asked lawmakers to be allowed to identify the deceased and repatriate the remains back home. Leonardo Ricci, a spokesman for the rescuers, said there was a “preliminary plan” to raise the boat’s wreck from the seabed.
“We have a legal but also a moral responsibility to recover all the bodies,” he said.
Immigration law in the spotlight
The mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, has said private citizens may have been put off coming to the rescue, due to a controversial law against people seen as facilitating illegal immigration.
“The fishing boats left because our country has taken to court fisherman and ship owners who saved lives and were accused of favoring illegal immigration. The government has to change these inhuman norms,” Nicolini told reporters.
On Saturday, fisherman from the island went out to sea in their boats and laid a wreath in memory of those drowned.
Italy, meanwhile, has asked for its increasing refugee influx to be put on the agenda of a meeting of EU interior ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday.
jr/rc (AFP, Reuters, dpa)