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

Reuters

* Minister says "strong action" needed to stop shipwrecks

* Hundreds drowned in boat disasters last week

* Italy and Malta want more funds from EU

By James Mackenzie

ROME, Oct 13 (Reuters) - Italy is to step up naval and airpatrols in the southern Mediterranean to try to prevent repeatsof the shipwrecks which have drowned hundreds of Africanmigrants in two separate disasters in little more than a week.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta said late on Saturday an "airand naval package" would be put in place south of Sicily, wheretens of thousands of migrants in flimsy, overcrowded boats havemade the crossing from Africa so far this year.

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

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

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

"Survivors told us that shots were fired at the boat as ittook to the sea," she said. "Three people were wounded and theboat 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 wereinvolved but promised to investigate.

The incident underlined the chaotic conditions in Libya, thedeparture point for many migrant boats. The central governmentis struggling to impose its authority on armed militia groups.

Italian officials have been increasingly worried by theuncontrolled surge in arrivals from a region also destabilisedby civil war in Syria and unrest in Egypt and elsewhere.

"We intend to triple our presence, in terms of both men andmeans in the southern Mediterranean, for a military-humanitarianmission that has been made necessary in part by the fact thatLibya is currently a 'non-state'," Defence Minister Mario Maurotold the Catholic daily Avvenire.

"We need strong action to stop these shipwrecks out to sea."

He said operational and financial details of the deploymentwere being worked out and could involve more patrol vessels ormore powerful ships with greater surveillance capacity. Italianmedia reported that unmanned drone aircraft based in Sicilycould also be used to identify boats in trouble.

In addition to coastguard and frontier police vessels, theItalian navy currently has three vessels supported by fourhelicopters patrolling the area, and two surveillance aircraftwith night vision capabilities in support.

SEA "CEMETERY"

Italy and Malta, points of arrival for most of the migrantsfrom North Africa, have asked for more funds from the EuropeanUnion and called for the migrant emergency to be put on theagenda of the next European Council meeting on Oct. 24-25.

"The fact is that as things stand, we are just building acemetery within our Mediterranean Sea," Malta's Prime MinisterJoseph Muscat said in an interview with the BBC.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan backed calls for moreaction from Europe following a meeting with Muscat in Tripoli onSunday, but the Maltese prime minister said no real progresswould be made until order was restored along the African coast.

"To have a permanent solution or at least a better way ofdealing with the issue of illegal emigration, there needs to bestability in Libya," he said.

Italian and Maltese vessels recovered 34 bodies and pickedup 206 survivors on Friday after their boat capsized.

But according to survivors' estimates gathered by UnitedNations officials, the boat had been carrying as many as 350-450people, meaning the real death toll could be over 200. "At thisstage it's impossible to say for certain," Molinario said.

The incident came just over a week after more than 350Eritreans and Somalis drowned off the island of Lampedusa.

On Sunday, Italian vessels rescued about 400 people from astruggling boat around 60 miles (100 km) south of Lampedusawhile another boat carrying around 100 was picked up by Malteserescuers, an Italian coastguard official said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the internationalcommunity had to address the root causes of the crisis.

The deaths have set off a fierce political debate in Italyover tough rules intended to combat clandestine immigrationwhich make it an offence to offer help to illegal migrant boats.

Letta said on Saturday he favoured changing the law but hefaces stiff opposition from centre-right partners in hisleft-right coalition government who insist the law should stay.

Instability in North Africa and the Middle East has removedmany controls which used to prevent boats setting out, andEurope has struggled to come up with a comprehensive response.

European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malstrom hascalled this week for Europe's frontier agency Frontex to bestrengthened to be able to deploy search and rescue operations.

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