At least 130 migrants feared drowned in Mediterranean as capsized boat, bodies found

MILAN (Reuters) -Merchant vessels and a charity ship searching the Mediterranean for boats carrying migrants has found 10 bodies floating near a capsized rubber boat believed to have had 130 people on board, French humanitarian organization SOS Mediterranee said.

Another wooden boat was still missing with about 40 migrants aboard, a spokesman for the group said on Friday.

The civil hotline Alarm Phone had reported three boats were in distress on Wednesday, prompting SOS Mediterranee to launch a search “in very rough seas, with up to 6-metre waves,” the non-governmental organization said in a news release issued earlier.

Three merchant vessels helped the charity’s own rescue ship Ocean Viking search for the boats in international waters northeast of the Libyan city of Tripoli.

SOS Mediterranee said merchant ship MY ROSE found three bodies in the water and an airplane from EU border agency Frontex spotted the rubber boat soon after.

When Ocean Viking arrived on the scene it did not find any survivors but there were ten bodies in the water nearby. The statement issued on Twitter carried a photograph of a capsized black rubber boat.

A spokesman for the NGO said he had no information on the third boat that Alarm Phone had said was in distress.

Libya, divided by civil conflict for years, is a major route for migrants seeking to reach Europe.

The U.N.’s International Organization for Migration said that the latest deaths would bring the tally for the central Mediterranean route to close to 500 people this year, more than triple the toll for the same period of 2020.

“States stood defiant and refused to act to save the lives of more than 100 people,” said IOM’s Safa Msehli. “Let it be clear that it is state responsibility to respond to distress calls at sea,” she added.

The U.N. agencies called for reactivating state-led search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and for a halt to returning migrants to “unsafe ports.”

The IOM said in a report at the end of March that last year more than 2,200 people perished at sea.

The true toll is probably far higher as aid groups reported at least five “invisible shipwrecks” that were never confirmed as they left no survivors.

(Reporting by Maria Pia Quaglia and Emma Farge in Geneva; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mike Collett-White)

Italy convicts Tunisian over sinking that killed almost 700 migrants

Mohammed Ali Malek is seen at Catania's tribunal,

By Antonio Parrinello

CATANIA, Sicily (Reuters) – A Tunisian man accused of being the captain of a migrant boat that sank killing almost 700 people was found guilty of multiple manslaughter and people-smuggling on Tuesday and sentenced to 18 years in jail.

Only 28 people survived the disaster in April last year, when the small fishing boat capsized off the coast of Libya, with hundreds trapped in the hold.

Mohammed Ali Malek, 28, was one of those rescued and denied being the captain, saying he had paid for passage like everyone else, but a court in the city of Catania dismissed his defense.

The court also sentenced 26-year-old Syrian Mahmud Bikhit to five years in prison on charges of people-smuggling. Survivors said Bikhit had been Malek’s cabin boy. He had denied any wrongdoing.

Both men were also handed fines of nine million euros ($9.5 million). Their lawyers said they would appeal the convictions.

“We think we have some strong arguments and we will try and work on some of the weaker points of our defense,” said Massimo Ferrante, representing Malek.

Outrage over the incident prompted European Union leaders to bolster its own search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean days after the boat went down.

In the past three years, roughly half a million boat migrants have arrived on Italian shores and almost 12,000 have died in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Prosecutors had told the court that Malek mishandled the grossly overloaded fishing boat, which left from Darabli, Libya, carrying men, women and children from Algeria, Somalia, Egypt, Senegal, Zambia, Mali, Bangladesh and Ghana.

They say he caused the vessel to collide with a Portuguese merchant ship that was coming to its aid.

As passengers rushed away from the side of the boat which had struck the ship, it capsized and sank within minutes.

State prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro said in a statement that the case showed Italy had the right to press smuggling charges over incidents in international waters.

The Italian justice system got involved this time because the survivors were brought to Italy. Italy’s navy raised the boat in June and 675 bodies were recovered.

Earlier this year another migrant boat sank in the Mediterranean killing around 500 people, with the survivors taken to Greece. A Reuters investigation found that no official body, national or multinational, has held anyone to account for the deaths or even opened an inquiry.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Philip Pullella and Andrew Roche)