Search for victims of Sicily migrant wreck postponed

Reuters

* More than 100 bodies trapped in sunken boat

* "Today is a day for crying" says pope

* Disaster fuels political row over immigration in Italy

By Steve Scherer and Wladimir Pantaleone

LAMPEDUSA, Italy, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Choppy seas preventeddivers on Friday from recovering more bodies of migrants whodied in a shipwreck off Sicily that has killed an estimated 300,in one of the worst disasters of Europe's immigration crisis.

Rescue teams have so far recovered 111 bodies and expect tofind more than 100 others in and around the wreck, submerged in47 metres of water less than a kilometre (0.6 miles) from theshore of the southern island of Lampedusa.

After 155 people were pulled from the water alive onThursday, strong winds and metre-high waves made it impossiblefor 40 divers to safely collect bodies. There was little hope offinding more survivors from the almost 500 passengers estimatedto have been on board.

"Though the bad sea conditions persist, our guys are readyto go down if a window opens up that makes it safe for them,"coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini told Reuters. The swell isforecast to rise on Saturday and slowly diminish from Sunday.

Though the tiny island takes in thousands of immigrantsevery year and there have been similar wrecks in the past,residents were shaken by the sheer size of the tragedy.

CANDLELIT MARCH

Lampedusans observed a day of national mourning, closing gasstations, restaurants and shops. After an evening mass in honourof the victims, hundreds took part in a silent candlelit march.

A man holding a cross made from the wood of a wrecked boatled the procession past a banner that said: "We want to welcomethe living, not the dead."

"Stop! There are no excuses for indifference" read a bannercarried by children.

Some of the nearly 1,000 immigrants now on the island alsotook part, including 20-year-old Eritrean Afwork, who said hehad made a two-day boat journey from Libya a month ago and wasnow seeking refugee status.

"They were our brothers and sisters. We are very angry. Weare very said," he said.

A black flag bearing the word "shame" was flying over theport, close to a cemetery of rotting boats used by migrants tomake past crossings from North Africa.

Lampedusa, a tiny fishing and tourist island halfway betweenSicily and the coasts of Tunisia and Libya, has borne the bruntof a crisis which over the years has seen tens of thousands ofmigrants arrive in unsafe and overcrowded vessels.

HANDS AND HEADS

The boat, carrying mainly Eritrean and Somalis, sank in theearly hours of Thursday after fuel caught fire, triggering apanicked rush to one side of the vessel, which capsized.

"I could see dozens of hands and heads, and we heard criesfor help," said fisherman Vito Fiorino, who helped save 47people.

"We alerted the port authority by radio and we started torescue them, using a life preserver tied to a line attached tothe fishing boat."

Pietro Bartolo, chief doctor at the island's clinic, toldReuters survivors were exhausted and dehydrated.

"They are very fragile emotionally, and not only because ofthe shipwreck, but because they are survivors of terribleexperiences. Many are fleeing wars and violence in their homecountries, and are weary from a long voyage of suffering."

"It took me five months to reach Italy," said the41-year-old Eritrean Abrahal, a survivor from another boat thatarrived a few days ago. "I paid $1,600 (to the smugglers) andthey put me on an old crate."

On a visit to Assisi, Pope Francis, who has drawn attentionto the plight of migrants, said the deaths in Lampedusaunderlined the desperation of the poor in a "savage world".

"Today is a day for crying," he said.

In the past 25 years, more than 19,000 people have diedtrying to reach Italy from North Africa, according to data ofknown shipwrecks. Many more are likely to have perished inunknown ones.

HUMANITARIAN CORRIDORS

The disaster has renewed pressure from Italy for more helpfrom the European Union to combat the decades-old migrant crisisin the Mediterranean.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta's centre-left Democratic Partycalled for an urgent meeting of the European Council to agree onsetting up special "humanitarian corridors" to provideprotection for migrant boats.

It has also fuelled a growing political row in which theanti-immigration Northern League party has called for theresignation of Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, Italy's firstblack minister, who was born in Democratic Republic of Congo.

It said her call for better integration of migrants intoItaly, including revised citizenship laws, had "sent dangeroussignals" to would-be migrants.

The mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, rejected calls byNorthern League politician Matteo Salvini for boats to be turnedback because they are full of "illegal immigrants".

"These are refugees. We have a duty to take them in. Theymust be respected," she told Reuters. "The League's message is avirus that is contaminating people with hate. In a moment likethis, they can't keep repeating this crap."

Controversy surrounds Italian immigration law, whichrequires repatriation of illegal migrants and which has led tothe seizing of fishing boats that have saved lives of migrants.

"This immigration law is killing people," said Enzo, a44-year-old fisherman in Lampedusa.

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