Italy to step up patrols in hope of saving migrants from shipwreck

Sun Oct 13, 2013 5:36pm EDT
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By James Mackenzie

ROME (Reuters) - Italy is to step up naval and air patrols in the southern Mediterranean to try to prevent repeats of the shipwrecks which have drowned hundreds of African migrants in two separate disasters in little more than a week.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta said late on Saturday an "air and naval package" would be put in place south of Sicily, where tens of thousands of migrants in flimsy, overcrowded boats have made the crossing from Africa so far this year.

At least 34 people drowned on Friday when their boat overturned, according to the Italian navy, but with many unaccounted for, the true total could be as high as 200 or more.

In a separate shipwreck on October 3, more than 350 died.

Survivors of Friday's wreck reported their vessel had been fired on as they left Libya, said Barbara Molinario, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Survivors told us that shots were fired at the boat as it took to the sea," she said. "Three people were wounded and the boat was damaged in such a way that it took on water."

She said the survivors said the shots were fired by "Libyans" but it was not possible to identify them more closely.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan denied Libyan forces were involved but promised to investigate.   Continued...

African migrants watch a memorial service for the deaths of hundreds of migrants in last week's Lampedusa boat disaster in Tel Aviv October 12, 2013. REUTERS/Nir Elias