Rome: Rescuers recovering the bodies of migrants left to die in the suffocating hull of an overcrowded fishing boat said on Wednesday they have found 45 bodies, up from an expected toll of 30.
Fire fighters in white anti-contamination suits and masks and armed with chainsaws and crowbars worked for hours to cut away at the narrow entrance to the hold before they could access the dead, whose bodies were tangled together.
Survivors told police that traffickers on board had forced their friends and relatives into the hold and bolted the door, despite their cries that they were dying of heat, lack of oxygen and engine fumes.
An initial examination of the hold had put the death toll at around 30, but rescuers on Wednesday confirmed it was 45.
Two local doctors have been tasked with performing autopsies on the victims, who were all male adults and hailed from Central Africa, according to media reports.
The corpses were blessed by both a Catholic priest and an imam as they were placed in silver body bags on the portside in Pozzallo in southeast Sicily.
"This is a blow to the hearts of all human beings, a tragedy for everyone regardless of religion and affinities," the imam from the nearby city of Scicli, Amin Ziri, was quoted as saying by the Corriere della Sera daily.
The victims were discovered late Sunday, when the Italian coast guard came to the rescue of the blue boat, which had set out from the coast of North Africa carrying around 600 migrants from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Cameroon.