Italian authorities have found the bodies of at least 12 people who drowned last week after a boat capsized in rough seas off the island of Lampedusa, Agencies report.
Photos released by the Italian coastguard showed some of the clothed bodies floating at a depth of about 60 metres (200ft). Among them was a woman who drowned while embracing her child of about eight months.
On Tuesday last week, Italian authorities rescued 22 survivors from the boat, which was carrying about 50 people. The bodies of 13 women were found at the time, including that of a 12-year-old girl. But after testimony from those who survived, it was clear dozens of people, including eight children, were missing.
According to an initial reconstruction of events, all the people onboard moved to one end of the vessel as the rescue boat arrived, causing it to overturn. Survivors said the boat had initially left Libya carrying mostly people from sub-Saharan Africa, before sailing along the coast to reach the city of Sfax in Tunisia, where another 15 people boarded for the journey to Sicily.
The site of the wreck was finally located on Tuesday and the bodies will be recovered in the next few days.
The Agrigento prosecutor, Salvatore Vella, who is leading the investigation into the incident and the search operation, said: “We believed in it until the end.
“The divers did not give up for a single day. They put all their heart into returning the bodies of loved ones to their relatives.”
The news has shaken Italy, particularly because of the high number of children onboard. Prosecutors have released some of the harrowing accounts of survivors.
Among those was that of a young Tunisian called Wissen. When the boat sank, the man recovered the body of a child who had been onboard. But suddenly, he recounted, another person desperately clung to his legs to try to save himself, risking dragging Wissen down with him. Wissen had to let go of the child to unfasten his trousers, and the other person drowned. Wissen was saved but could no longer find the child.
Although the number of arrivals has practically halved, thousands of people continue to attempt the crossing from Libya to Europe.
On Tuesday, the Italian coastguard assisted a boat with 180 people onboard, while Maltese authorities aided another boat carrying 75 people.
On Wednesday, the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking docked in Taranto with 176 people onboard. The vessel, operated by the charities SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières, had rescued them at sea about 30 miles (48km) off the Libyan coast.
While EU member states are working on a temporary plan to quickly take people off boats in the Mediterranean and distribute them among countries willing to accommodate them, there has been significant criticism in Italy of a human trafficker participating in a meeting with authorities.
Abd al-Rahman Milad, known as Bija – described by the UN as one of the world’s most notorious human traffickers – met Italian officials and a delegation from the Libyan coastguard at Cara di Mineo, one of the biggest migrant reception centres in Europe, in May 2017.
In February of that year, the then Italian interior minister, Marco Minniti, signed a memorandum with the leader of Libya’s UN-recognised government, Fayez al-Sarraj, introducing a new level of cooperation between the Libyan coastguard and Italy, including the provision of four patrol vessels.
Despite Italian authorities denying their involvement in the meeting, the UN migration agency has confirmed it was requested by the interior ministry.
Bija was reached by the Italian newspaper Avvenire, which first reported the case. In the interview, the trafficker said he was “offended by how the media have described him” and that he was “coming to that meeting only to discuss how to block the flow of migrants”.