Italy police catch suspected skippers of shipwrecked migrant boat

Italian authorities on Monday arrested two men blamed for one the three deadly migrant shipwrecks of last week, and reported that according to survivors one of those accidents left 300 missing at sea.

There were shipwrecks on the Libya-Italy sea route on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. According to UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, they have caused at least 700 deaths; the International Organization for Migration gave a worse estimate, speaking of 1,100 missing.

Moroccan Azridah Abdelfatah, 34, and Syrian Torki Omar, 30, skippered Friday's sunken boat, and were charged with causing a shipwreck, abetting illegal immigration, causing death or injury as a result of other crimes, and belonging to a criminal group.

They were apprehended in the southern port city of Reggio Calabria where they had arrived Sunday along with survivors and victims of a series of Mediterranean sea crossings from recent days, the ANSA news agency reported.

The Italian Navy recovered 45 bodies and rescued 135 migrants from Friday's shipwreck. Reggio Calabria Prosecutor Gaetano Paci said an accomplice of the two arrested men was presumed to be among the dead or the missing.

Separately, the Italian Coastguard gave additional details about Thursday's accident, through an official who could not be quoted by name.

He said survivors interviewed in several ports said they were making their way to Italy on two boats, one towing the other, each with about 450 people on board, when the tow cable for the second vessel was cut off.

As the cable snapped loose, it hit a female passenger on the second boat, killing her. The vessel then started to sink, and only 150 people aboard were rescued. The ones travelling in the first boat were all saved.

Rescue units also recovered some bodies, but the coastguard official could not give an exact number. Last week Eunavfor Med Sophia, the European Union naval mission which first rushed to the scene, spoke of at least 20 dead, but that figure was never confirmed.

The Italian Coastguard also said there had been no rescue operations on Sunday and Monday, as migrant departures from Libya had paused after recent tragic events.

UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami wrote on Twitter that the migrant death toll since Mediterranean search and rescue operations started in late 2013, in the wake of a major shipwreck near Italy's Lampedusa island, was "at least 9,000," or "300 every month."

According to Sunday data from the UNHCR, this year there have been 46,714 sea migrant arrivals in Italy, compared to 47,463 in January-May 2015, showing that despite the surge of the past few days, year-on-year flows are stable.

However, an increase is expected in the coming weeks, as warmer weather encourages departures from Libya, a major migrant smuggling hub that is still in chaos despite UN-led efforts to establish a national unity government.

Italy wants the EU to negotiate migration-stemming agreements with Libya and other African countries, and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told Monday's Corriere della Sera daily that Rome would cut deals on its own if Brussels did not act.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said he was optimistic about progress, a day after the European Commission said it was drafting a paper to inform discussions on the migration crisis at an EU summit on June 28-29.

"At last something is moving and the European Union seems determined to really bank on the Migration Compact proposed by Italy," Renzi said in an online newsletter, referring to Rome's draft plan for migration aid to Africa.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49

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