CLOSE TO 200 shocked survivors were plucked from the sea this morning after their overloaded boat sank, claiming more than 30 lives in the latest deadly migrant tragedy to hit the Mediterranean.
The sinking on Friday killed mostly women and children when the boat went down off Malta near the Italian island of Lampedusa packed with some 230 people desperate to reach European shores, according to officials.
The Italian navy said 34 people, including infants and children, were known to have died. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had given the figure of 27 at a press conference on Friday night.
Exhausted after a 10-hour journey from the wreck site, some 143 survivors arrived in Valetta on Saturday morning on board a Maltese naval vessel. The migrants, thought to come from the Horn of Africa, were escorted onto buses to be driven to shelters.
Fifty-six more survivors were being escorted to Porto Empedocle in Sicily on an Italian naval vessel. Another nine were airlifted to Lampedusa, including a couple with a nine-month-old-baby whose three-year-old brother drowned, emergency services said.
The sinking came just over a week after a similar tragedy killed more than 300 Africans in the deadliest refugee disaster to date in the region, prompting the European Union to call for sea patrols to cope with the flood of migrants knocking on its doors.
The Maltese navy had dispatched rescue ships and helicopters and diverted commercial vessels to the area, around 100 kilometres south of Lampedusa and 110 kilometres from Malta, while Italy sent two naval vessels and helicopters carrying inflatable life rafts.
European Union Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstroem said she was following the rescue operations “with sadness and anxiety” and praised Italy and Malta for their swift response.
“These new horrible events are happening while we still have the shocking images of the tragedy in Lampedusa in our minds,” she said, adding that the latest disaster highlighted the need for expanded search and rescue operations “to better detect and assist boats in distress”.
The Commission has been urging EU states to pledge planes, ships and funds for EU border guard service Frontex, whose budget has been cut.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta called the latest tragedy “a new and dramatic confirmation of the state of emergency”.
“Italy and Malta cannot be left all alone, this is a European problem,” said his Maltese counterpart, Joseph Muscat, who spoke with Letta by phone.
The migrants in Friday’s disaster alerted the authorities using a satellite phone when their boat got into difficulty in Maltese waters.
The boat, bound for Lampedusa, capsized after those aboard attempted to catch the attention of a military aircraft flying overhead by gathering at one end of the vessel, the Maltese navy said.
The sinking came as Italian divers found another body from last week’s refugee shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, raising the death toll in the tragedy to 312.
Only 155 survivors were rescued out of an estimated 500 people, most of them Eritreans and Somalis, on the boat which departed from Libya.
The disaster has shown up the EU’s asylum policy, which has been criticised for being overly restrictive and forcing refugees to resort to desperate measures to reach Europe.