Italy will start the underwater recovery of bodies from a shipwreck off Libya on the one-year anniversary of what is considered the worst ever Mediterranean migration accident, an Interior Ministry official said Wednesday.
Prefect Vittorio Piscitelli, a special envoy for missing persons, said the Italian Navy believes that "at least 400" victims will be found inside the hold of the vessel, which lies about 157 kilometres north-east of the Libyan coast, 375 metres below sea level.
"These are the estimated numbers, but we do not rule out surprises," Piscitelli said at a news briefing at the ministry in Rome.
He said the navy, or Marina Militare, was going to lift up the vessel, cover it up and refrigerate it to conserve the bodies, and tow it to the Sicilian NATO naval base of Melilli, where forensic teams will work on identifying the bodies.
In the immediate aftermath of the shipwreck on April 18, 2015, rescue teams found 24 bodies and 28 survivors. Later, a remotely operated device recovered more victims from the top of the wreck and surrounding seabed, but could not do anything for bodies crammed inside the boat.
Piscitelli said a total of 169 victims have been recovered so far, none of which have been identified. Experts from more than 20 Italian universities have volunteered to try to give names to the dead, he added.
Victims will likely be buried in separate locations, as a plan to create a Migrants Cemetery in the southern region of Calabria, near a former concentration camp for Jews, had yet to secure necessary funding, the prefect indicated.
The sinking of the boat sent shock waves across the world last year, and jolted the European Union into tripling funding for Mediterranean rescue missions to prevent more deaths at sea.
It also led Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to state that its retrieval was a matter of national pride.
"We will go fetch that boat, the one that sank in last month's carnage, and we will lift it up. I want the whole world to see what happened. It is unacceptable for some people to keep thinking along the lines of 'out of sight, out of mind,'" Renzi said 11 months ago.
Piscitelli said the project would burnish Italy's humanitarian reputation and "critically" boost its chances of securing a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council in June elections.
It was not clear how much the operation was going to cost, but junior interior minister Domenico Manzione said Rome would cite the project in negotiations with Brussels on winning extra leeway on deficit targets due to extra migration crisis expenses.
"It becomes hard to tell those arriving on rickety boats" that there are no funds to rescue them because Italy has to respect EU regulations on spending, Manzione said in the press conference with Piscitelli.
The prefect is also coordinating efforts to identify the 387 victims of two October 2013 shipwrecks, including a notorious one off the island of Lampedusa that killed 366. Only about 20 have been given a name, he said.
In a biannual report issued Wednesday, Piscitelli said a total of 1,118 bodies rescued from the sea - including more than 1,000 taken to Sicily - were in storage in morgues across Italy awaiting identification.
Another part of the prefect's agenda is dealing with migrants who disappear after landing on Italian shores. In many cases, they flee from reception centres to join relatives or friends in wealthier northern European nations.
As of December 31, 2015, 34,500 persons were registered as missing in Italy, including nearly 26,000 foreigners and more than 19,000 foreign children, the report said. In 2012, the total number of missing persons was under 27,000.