Migrants, including children, were thrown into the sea from an overcrowded boat by people smugglers, survivors of a deadly shipwreck have said. At least 65 people, including 14 youngsters, died when their the wooden vessel slammed into shoals near the shore of Steccato di Cutro, Italy.
The boat, which sailed from Turkey and carried people from countries including Afghanistan and Iran, broke apart and sank in rough seas early on Sunday.
About 80 survivors have now been accounted for of the 170 people who are reported to have attempted the perilous journey from Izmir last week. The smugglers are alleged to have charged around £7,000 (€8,000) each for the voyage.
Survivors have now claimed the traffickers started to throw migrants, some of whom they said were children, overboard in a bid to lighten the boat’s load.
One survivor told Italian newspaper La Stampa: “The traffickers started to throw kids out, they grabbed them by the arm and threw them in the sea.”
Another survivor alleged that the smugglers pushed 20 people overboard before the boat was smashed apart.
Firefighter Inspector Giuseppe Larosa, who was on the beach on Monday, said the initial rescue crews that arrived were devastated that children had drowned.
He said those involved in the rescue effort spotted scratches all over the bodies of the dead as if they tried to hang onto the side of the boat.
Mr Larosa told ITV News: “It was a spine-chilling scene.”
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He added that he was haunted by the survivors’ reactions, saying: “The terror in their eyes and the fact they were mute. Silent.”
A toddler’s trainer, a pink, child’s onesie and a pencil case decorated with pandas were among the items washed up on the beach.
Meanwhile, desperate relatives and friends have arrived in the city of Crotone, hoping to find their loved ones.
Aladdin Mohibzada told Associated Press he drove 25 hours from Germany to reach a makeshift morgue set up at a sports stadium.
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He said he had discovered that his aunt and two of the children died, but that a five-year-old survived and was being sheltered in a centre for minors.
Mr Mohibzada said: “We are looking into possibilities to send [the bodies] to Afghanistan, the bodies that are here.”
But he complained about a lack of information as authorities scrambled to cope with the disaster.
He said: “We are helpless here. We don’t know what we should do.”
Aid agencies at the scene have said many of the boat’s passengers were from Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, Syria and Iraq.
Rescue teams pulled two bodies from the sea on Tuesday, bringing the toll to 65, according to local police.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni has written to European leaders demanding swift action on the continent’s longstanding migration problem.
She demanded that migrants must be stopped from risking their lives on dangerous sea crossings.
Ms Meloni told RAI state television on Monday: “The point is, the more people who set off, the more people risk dying.”
Italy’s right-wing government has complicated efforts by humanitarian vessels to make multiple rescues in the central Mediterranean by assigning them ports of disembarkation along Italy’s northern coasts.
The decision means the boats need more time to return to sea after bringing migrants aboard and taking them safely to shore.
Aid groups’ rescue ships don’t usually operate in the area of Sunday’s shipwreck off the Calabrian coast in the Ionian Sea.
They generally operate in the central Mediterranean, rescuing migrants who set off from Libya or Tunisia and not from Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.
Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi pushed back at suggestions the rescue was delayed or affected by government policy.
He told Corriere della Sera: “There was no delay. Everything possible was done in absolutely prohibitive sea conditions.”
Crotone prosecutor Giuseppe Capoccia confirmed investigators had identified three suspected smugglers, a Turk and two Pakistani nationals. A second Turk is believed to have escaped or died in the wreck.
The Italian Coast Guard issued a statement today saying Frontex had indicated the migrants’ boat was “navigating normally” and only one person could be seen above deck.
It added an Italian border police vessel already operating in the sea had set out to intercept the migrant boat.
The statement said: “At about 4:30 am, some indications by telephone from subjects on land, relative to a boat in danger a few meters from the coast, reached the Coast Guard”.
At that point, a Carabinieri police boat which had been alerted by border police informed the Coast Guard about the shipwreck.
In contrast to similar cases of migrant vessels in distress, those on board did not phone the Coast Guard, the statement noted.
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