By James Mackenzie
CATANIA, Italy – Italian prosecutors blamed the captain of a grossly overloaded fishing boat for a collision which capsized and sank his vessel off Libya, drowning hundreds of migrants including many women and children locked below deck.
The few survivors of Sunday’s tragedy told investigators how the African and Bangladeshi migrants, among hundreds of thousands trying to escape war and poverty, had waited up to a month in Libya before the boat set sail for Europe. One said he had suffered a beating at the hands of people traffickers.
The heavy loss of life among the migrants, who paid hundreds of dollars in the hope of getting over the Mediterranean, has put heavy pressure on European leaders to respond effectively to a dramatic rise in deaths among people attempting the crossing.
Only 28 survivors have been brought to Italy from the hundreds of people on board the fishing boat. Police have quoted them as giving death tolls ranging from 400 to 950 in what appears to have been the worst disaster ever among migrants fleeing by sea to Europe from north Africa.
Italian police arrested a 27-year-old Tunisian, named as Mohammed Ali Malek, who is believed to have been the captain of the ship. He may be charged with multiple homicide, as well as people smuggling and causing a shipwreck.
His lawyer, Massimo Ferrante, said he had spoken very briefly to Malek but language difficulties limited their contact. Ferrante added that he expected a fuller discussion of the case before a judge begins questioning witnesses on Friday to decide whether to file charges.
Prosecutors say that with his boat already in serious difficulty, the captain attempted to come up to a Portuguese merchant vessel that had approached to give aid and collided with the much larger ship.
The prosecutors’ office in the Sicilian coastal city of Catania said no blame was attached to the Portuguese vessel.