December 12, 2013
Hundreds dead, missing as migrant boat sinks off Italy - Video
More than 300 people drowned or were feared dead after a boat packed with African migrants caught fire and sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, one of the worst disasters of Europe's chronic immigration crisis.
The 20-metre (66-foot) boat, believed to be carrying around 500 people, mostly Eritreans and Somalis, sank no more than 1 km (half a mile) from shore after a fire broke out, triggering a general panic that capsized the vessel.
The incident occurred when the boat's motor stopped working and the vessel, which had set out from the Libyan port of Misrata, began to take on water, Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said.
People on board burned a sheet to attract the attention of rescuers, but ignited fuel on the vessel.
"Once the fire started, there was concern about the boat sinking and everyone moved to one side, causing the boat to go down," he told a news conference.
Bodies pulled from the water were laid out along the quayside as coast guard vessels brought in more victims.
"It's horrific, like a cemetery," said Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa, the tiny island which has been at the centre of southern Europe's migration headache.
Fishing boats and coast guard vessels rescued 151 people in the morning and by late evening 104 bodies, including at least three children and two pregnant women, had been recovered. But divers had seen scores more trapped in the sunken ship, which rested in some 40 metres (132 feet) of water.
"They're certainly all dead," said Domenico Colapinto, a local fisherman whose vessel rescued 18 survivors in the morning. "There won't be anyone alive now because when we picked them up people were already exhausted," he told SkyTG24 television as evening fell.
The disaster happened four days after 13 migrants drowned off eastern Sicily. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said action was needed by the European Union to stem "a succession of massacres of innocent people".
Last year, almost 500 people were reported dead or missing on the crossing from Tunisia to Italy, the U.N. refugee office UNHCR says. Syrians fleeing civil war have added to the numbers.