At least 30 people are missing and 17 were rescued after a boat with migrants capsized en route to Italy from Libya over the weekend, Italy's coast guard says. Separately, more than 1,300 migrants were brought ashore in Italy after multiple rescues.
According to the Italian coast guard, 30 people are missing and 17 were rescued in the Central Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya on Sunday (March 12). The boat in which the migrants were traveling from Libya reportedly capsized in bad weather.
According to migrant rescue NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans citing several sources, the vessel was traveling in the direction of Italy and capsized about 180 kilometers northwest of the Libyan city of Benghazi.
Distress hotline Alarm Phone said it was alerted by 47 migrants on the boat early Saturday morning. It said the "situation was critical," the boat was "adrift" and the weather conditions were "extremely dangerous." Alarm Phone also said it forwarded the coordinates to the Italian, Maltese, and Libyan authorities.
Later on Saturday, NGO Sea-Watch, which operates surveillance planes to detect migrants boats in distress in the Central Mediterranean, spotted the boat in question.
After an initial rescue attempt by a merchant ship failed due to bad weather, Libyan authorities reportedly asked the Italian government for help given that they lacked the means to carry out the rescue, news agency Reuters reported citing a statement by the Italian coast guard. Alarm Phone confirmed this episode in a report summarizing the tragedy.
The government in Rome then requested merchant ships in the area to join the rescue efforts. However, the migrant vessel capsized during an attempt to transfer the people on to the 'Froland' merchant ship on Sunday morning, according to Reuters.
Alarm Phone, on the other hand, said that the boat capsized with all 47 people on it due to a lack of help, and that the Froland rescued the 17 survivors.
Rescue operations were ongoing late on Sunday, supported by merchant ships and aerial support by the EU's border agency Frontex, while two further merchant vessels were en route to the area, Reuters reported citing the coast guard.
Read more: Thousands of migrants suffering in Libya detention centers, IOM says
Criticism from NGOs, opposition
Alarm Phone blamed Italy for not sending its coast guard despite being repeatedly alerted on Saturday that the boat was in trouble.
"Clearly, the Italian authorities were trying to avoid that the people would be brought to Italy, delaying intervention so that the so-called Libyan coastguard would arrive and forcibly return people to Libya," it said in an online statement published late on Sunday.
In contrast, Italy's coast guard said the capsizing occurred outside the Italian Search and Rescue (SAR) area. The deadly episode laid bare "the inactivity" of other countries in the Mediterranean, the unit said according to news agency AFP. The government in Rome has long complained to its EU partners that it bears the brunt of the tens of thousands of migrants seeking to reach Europe by boat each year.
Moreover, Italy's Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said the Italian government was doing all it could to avoid shipwrecks. "We have always argued that it's necessary to stop the departures of unseaworthy vessels," Tajani told the Il Messaggero newspaper on Monday, adding that his government and the European Commission were supplying Libya with more patrol boats.
In contrast, Enrico Borghi, a senator with the center-left Democratic Party, accused the government of being responsible for the crisis.
"[It] thinks it can solve such a profound problem through media posturing, the criminal code and fake efforts at appearing tough," he wrote on Twitter on Saturday. "The result: landings have tripled with the Meloni government."
Elly Schlein, the newly elected leader of the opposition Democratic Party, said the shipwrecks were "shameful for Italy and for Europe".
Meloni herself issued a statement on Saturday, saying the only solution lay with a joint European effort to strengthen the EU's borders and enhance cooperation with expulsions.
In all, the United Nations estimates that 300 migrants have died in the Central Mediterranean so far this year. The real number is expected to be a lot higher.
The latest shipwreck in the Mediterranean comes exactly two weeks after at least 76 people died when their boat hit rocks near the coast of the southern Italian region of Calabria. (See update below.)
Read more: Italy hands over patrol boat to Libyan government
Over 1,300 migrants brought ashore in Italy
Meanwhile, the Italian coast guard on Saturday (March 11) said that more than 1,300 migrants had been rescued in three operations off the southern tip of Italy. An additional 200 migrants were saved off Sicily, according to the coast guard.
The coast guard said one of its vessels took 500 migrants to the city of Reggio Calabria after it had taken them off one boat more than 160 kilometers out at sea, Reuters reported. A further 379 migrants were removed from a separate vessel in the same vicinity.
"The rescues (were) complex due to the boats being overloaded with migrants and the unfavorable sea conditions," the coast guard said in a statement.
Another packed fishing boat carrying 487 migrants was escorted into the Calabrian port of Crotone. It was reportedly lashed to a tugboat to help give it stability.
According to Reuters citing local officials, a further 200 people had been picked up off the coast of Sicily and were expected to be ferried to Catania later on Saturday.
The rescue operations took place just days after around 1,350 migrants made the dangerous sea crossing to Lampedusa from North Africa. The migrants, who arrived last Tuesday and Wednesday on boats within 24 hours, reportedly hailed from Syria, Yemen and various African countries. They reportedly started their journeys from the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax.
According to Reuters, Italy's air force on Saturday flew migrants out of a packed reception center on the island of Lampedusa.
Read more: Tunisian coast guard recovers 14 bodies in Mediterranean
3 more bodies recovered after Feb 26 shipwreck
The rescue operations came on the same day that authorities announced they had retrieved three more bodies from the shipwreck off Calabria on February 26. The bodies recovered were those of two girls, both under the age of 10, and that of an adult male, said Italian news reports.
The discovery brings the death toll from the shipwreck to at least 76, AFP reports. According to Reuters, there are 79 survivors, but around 30 are still missing and presumed dead.
Prosecutors are investigating whether Italian authorities should have done more to prevent the shipwreck, Reuters reported. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has so far rejected the suggestion, instead blaming human traffickers for the disaster.
On Thursday (March 9), Meloni's cabinet introduced tougher jail terms for people smugglers and promised to open up more channels for legal migration, Reuters reported. In late 2022, her government cracked down on NGOs operating migrant rescue boats, accusing them of acting as a taxi service for migrants.
The charities denied this was the case. The measure has led to a sharp reduction in the number of rescue ships patrolling the Mediterranean, without apparently dissuading migrants from risking the deadly crossing.
On Saturday, thousands of people marched in the city of Crotone and on the beach in memory of the victims.
Read more: Do NGO ships encourage more migrants to cross the Mediterranean?
Report about migrants waiting to get to Italy from Libya
Meanwhile, intelligence reports indicate nearly 700,000 migrants are allegedly in Libya awaiting an opportunity to set out by sea toward Italy, a lawmaker from Premier Giorgia Meloni's far-right party said Sunday.
Tommaso Foti, the lower parliamentary house whip for the Brothers of Italy Party, told television channel Tgcom24 the Italian secret services estimated that 685,000 migrants in Libya, many of them in detention camps, were eager to sail across the central Mediterranean Sea in smugglers' boats.
But UN migration official Flavio Di Giacomo called the number an "estimate" that "doesn't seem to be absolutely credible," he told the Associated Press (AP) news agency.
The spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) cautioned that the figure appeared to be confusing the high end of the estimated number of migrants in Libya with those who were actually seeking to head from there to Europe, Di Giacomo said.
"Only a minimum part want to leave and only a minimum part succeeds in leaving" for Europe, he added. For example, many migrants in Libya come from Niger and Chad, two African nations on Libya's southern border, and eventually return to their homelands, the IOM spokesperson said.
The Italian intelligence service's estimate "is the last of a long series of alarms that we've seen in the last 10, 12 years, that turned out to be mistaken,'' Di Giacomo added.
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with Reuters, AP, AFP