It was the third ship of the night to head toward the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa packed to the brim with migrants seeking a better life in Europe. The first, filled with Syrians, arrived about 10 p.m. The second, carrying Eritreans, slipped in at 2 a.m.

The third never reached the shore.

At least 114 people died and scores more were missing late Thursday after a crowded fishing boat carrying African migrants from Tripoli caught fire, flipped over and sank, Italian officials said.

In the dark of night, hundreds of men, women and children who didn’t know how to swim were flung into the sea about a half-mile from Lampedusa. Between 450 and 500 people were believed to be on board; health commissioner Antonio Candela said only 159 were rescued.

“We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances,” said Pietro Bartolo, chief of Lampedusa health services.

Bartolo, speaking to Italy’s Radio 24, put the death toll at 94 but said it would certainly rise as search operations continued. Italian coast guard divers later reported seeing another 20 bodies near the ship, which by then was lying on the ocean floor.

It was one of the deadliest accidents in the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing that thousands make every year, seeking a new life in the prosperous European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head to take people to Europe aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests or other safety features.


The 20-meter (66-foot) boat left from Tripoli with migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, Italian coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla told The Associated Press.


Usually, smugglers have mobile or satellite phones to call for help when they near the shore or run into trouble. Instead, someone on this boat set fire to a piece of material to attract the attention of passing ships, he said. The blaze spread to the ship itself, and when panicked passengers fled to one side to avoid the fire, the boat capsized.

Women and children apparently fared the worst. Only three of the boat’s estimated 100 women were rescued—and none of the 10 children believed on board were saved, said Simona Moscarelli, a legal expert for the International Organization for Migration in Rome. Two of the dead were pregnant.


Survivors packed Lampedusa’s detention center for migrants along with those from the two boats that landed safely. Over 1,000 people were squeezed into a space built for 250, Moscarelli said. Medical workers scrambled to attend to the injured.

Migrants who arrive in Lampedusa are processed in centers, screened for asylum and often sent back home. Some slip into the general public and make their way to northern Europe, seeking to blend into larger immigrant communities. {snip}


A host of Italian officials on Thursday demanded that the 28-nation EU do more to combat smuggling operations and help border countries like Italy.

“Let us hope that the European Union realizes this isn’t an Italian problem but a European one,” Alfano said as he headed to Lampedusa to oversee the recovery operation.


Hundreds of migrants reach Italy’s shores every day, particularly during the summer when the seas are usually calmer. According to the U.N. refugee agency, 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and Malta in the first six months of this year, almost double the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012. The numbers have spiked in recent weeks, particularly with Syrian arrivals.

Still, they are a far cry from the tens of thousands who flooded to Italy—many through Lampedusa—during the Arab Spring exodus of 2011.


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