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Italy migrant death toll reaches at least 185

Last Updated: Sunday, October 6, 2013 - 23:59

Lampedusa: An Italian government minister born in Africa watched wordlessly on Sunday as soldiers carried bags containing the bodies of would-be asylum seekers from her native continent who perished when their packed fishing boat sank within sight of the tiny island of Lampedusa.

Divers recovered 74 more bodies after seas calmed enough to resume search operations following a two-day suspension, increasing the death toll to at least 185, 55 of those women and five children. More than 150 other people are believed to be missing, many likely trapped in the wreckage about 50 meters (165 feet) below the surface.

Search operations will continue "as long as the sea is calm and there is light," police Maj. Leonardo Ricci said.

Congolese-born integration minister Cecile Kyenge watched with the island`s mayor as the bodies were lifted from boats on to trucks to be brought to a makeshift morgue at the airport.

"There are no words in front of the dead," Kyenge told reporters later. "They are difficult moments that make us face our responsibilities."

She said it was time for reflection "to prevent new tragedies."

"We cannot deal with this tragedy alone, but together with Europe. We must give answers to those who flee, need protection, and come here for help," Kyenge said.

Italy`s European partners have signalled their solidarity. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso plans to visit the island Wednesday.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Europe must act to stem the migrant tragedy, adding that both France and Italy have asked that the subject be placed on the agenda of Tuesday`s EU interior ministers` meeting.

"The Mediterranean cannot remain a huge cemetery under the open skies," Fabius said on French TV station iTele. The migrants, mostly from Eritrea, were aboard the 20-meter (65-foot) fishing boat that sank early Thursday after passengers panicked by flames set to draw attention of any potential rescuer bolted to one side of the boat, capsising it.

Hundreds were flung into the sea, many of whom could not swim, while others were trapped in the hull. Survivors told rescuers they were in the water for three hours; many clung to empty water bottles to stay afloat and some were too weak to grab lifesavers thrown to them.

Earlier, Kyenge visited the survivors at a refugee centre in Lampedusa, where she called conditions "shameful." Most of the 155 survivors remain at the island`s overcrowded centre, many sleeping in the open. Two have been transferred to hospitals in Sicily.


First Published: Sunday, October 6, 2013 - 21:17
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