ROME (AP) — At least 43 migrants died when their overcrowded wooden boat smashed into rocky reefs and broke apart off southern Italy before dawn Sunday, the Italian coast guard said. Survivors reportedly indicated that dozens more could be missing.
“As of now, 80 persons were recovered alive, some of whom succeeded in reaching the shore after the shipwreck. and 43 bodies were found along the shore,” the coast guard said in a statement issued shortly before noon.
Italian state TV later reported 45 cloth-covered bodies were brought to the sports stadium in the nearest city, Crotone.
There were also various estimates of how many people were aboard the boat when it collided with the reefs in violently rough seas. Some of the wreckage ended up on a stretch of beach along Calabria’s Ionian Sea coast, where splinted pieces of bright blue wood littered the sand like matchsticks.
Reporting from the village of Steccato di Cutro, state TV quoted survivors as saying the boat had set out five days earlier from Turkey with more than 200 passengers.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni said some 200 migrants had been crowded into a 20-meter (66-foot) -long boat.
Italy’s coast guard, which was coordinating the rescue, said about 120 migrants were believed to have been on board.
Italian authorities said a rescue operation involving a helicopter and police aircraft, and vessels from state firefighter squads, the coast guard and border police, was underway Sunday. Local fishermen also joined in the search for survivors.
A pair of firefighter water rescuers struggled with wind gusts and waves several meters (yards) high crashing onto the beach as they brought a body ashore.
A local priest said he blessed bodies while they were still lying on the beach.
One survivor was taken into custody for questioning after survivors indicated he was a trafficker, Rai state TV said.
In a statement released by the premier’s office, Meloni expressed “her deep sorrow for the many human lives torn away by human traffickers.”
“It’s inhumane to exchange the lives of men, women and children for the ‘price’ of a ticket paid by them in the false prospect for a safe voyage,” said Meloni, a far-right-wing leader whose governing allies includes the anti-migrant League party.
She vowed to pursue a crackdown on departures arranged by people smugglers and to press fellow European Union leaders to help Italy in her quest.
Some of the survivors tried to keep warm, wrapped in blankets and quilts and were taken by bus to a temporary shelter.
State TV said 22 survivors were taken to hospital for treatment.
A coast guard motorboat rescued two men suffering from hypothermia and recovered the body of a boy in the rough seas, the agency said in a statement. Firefighter boats, including rescue divers, recovered 28 bodies, including three pulled by a strong current far away from the wreckage.
Among the dead were an 8-year-old boy and a baby a few months old, according to Italian news reports.
Pope Francis on Sunday lamented that children were among the shipwreck victims.
Francis told the faithful in St. Peter’s Square: “I pray for each of them, for the missing and the other migrants who survived.” The pontiff added he also was praying for the rescuers “and for those who give welcome” to the migrants.
“It’s an enormous tragedy,” Crotone Mayor Vincenzo Voce told RAI state TV.
“In solidarity, the city will find places in the cemetery” for the dead, Voce said.
Details about the nationalities of the migrants were not immediately provided in the reports.
It was also not clear where the boat had set out from, but migrant vessels arriving in Calabria usually depart from Turkish or Egyptian shores. Many of these boats, including sailboats, often reach remote stretches of Italy’s long southern coastline unaided by the coast guard or humanitarian rescue vessels.
Another sea route employed by traffickers, considered among the deadliest for migration, crosses the central Mediterranean Sea from Libya’s coast, where migrants often endure brutal detention conditions for months, before they can board rubber dinghies or aging wooden fishing boats, toward Italian shores.
Most of the migrants departing from Libya are fleeing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa or in Asian countries including Bangladesh and Pakistan, not war or persecution, and risk having asylum bids denied by Italian authorities.
Another heavily plied route by traffickers’ boats begins on Tunisia’s shores, with many of those boats reaching the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, or Sardinian beaches, often without need of rescue.
Meloni’s government has concentrated on complicating efforts by humanitarian boats to make multiple rescues in the central Mediterranean by assigning them ports of disembarkation along Italy’s northern coasts, meaning the vessels need more time to return to the sea after bringing those rescued aboard, often hundreds of migrants, safely to shore.
Humanitarian organizations have lamented that the crackdown also includes an order to the charity boats not to remain at sea after the first rescue operation in hopes of performing other rescues, but to head immediately to their assigned port of safety. Violators face stiff fines and confiscation of the rescue vessel.
Opposition parties pointed to Sunday’s tragedy as proof that Italy’s migration policy was badly flawed.
“Condemning only the smugglers, as the center-right is doing now, is hypocrisy,″ Laura Ferrara, a European Parliament lawmaker from the populist 5-Star Movement, said.
“The truth is that the EU today doesn’t offer effective alternatives for those who are forced abandon their country of origin,″ Ferrara said in a statement.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella noted that many of the migrants risking their lives on unseaworthy boats come from Afghanistan and Iran, “fleeing from conditions of great difficulty.”
Mattarella called on the European Union to “finally concretely assume the responsibility of managing the migratory phenomenon to remove it from the traffickers of human beings.″ He said the EU should support development in countries where young people who see no future decide to risk dangerous sea journeys toward what they hope will be better lives.
Italy has complained bitterly for years that fellow EU countries have balked at taking in some of the arrivals, many of whom are aiming to find family or work in northern Europe.