- POSTED: 07 Oct 2013 08:50
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Divers in Italy recovered 83 more bodies Sunday after a shipwreck in which over 300 African refugees are feared to have died, as a government minister called for an easing of immigration rules.
LAMPEDUSA, Italy: Divers in Italy recovered 83 more bodies Sunday after a shipwreck in which over 300 African refugees are feared to have died, as a government minister called for an easing of immigration rules.
Divers working at a depth of nearly 50 metres (164 feet) described nightmarish scenes under water: bodies trapped in the wreckage, locked in a final embrace or lying on the seabed covered in sand.
"We saw a lot of bodies piled up in every part of the ship. Wherever we looked, there were bodies," Antonio D'Amico, a police diver, told reporters.
Divers hope to finish their grim task by Tuesday.
The official death toll now stands at 194, with 155 other asylum seekers rescued after their boat caught fire and sank off the island of Lampedusa on Thursday, but scores more are still missing.
"My family, a lot of friends were on that boat. I cannot speak of it, it is too painful," a 25-year-old survivor, Ali, told AFP.
He recounted how the fire first began on the boat -- the captain burned a T-shirt to attract the attention of Italian coast guards near the shore.
"When the people saw the fire, they went to the other side and the ship lost its balance. A lot of persons sink down (sic). The terror began," he said.
As the black body bags were brought to shore, Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge was on the dock and a representative of Pope Francis blessed each one before they were taken to an airport hangar.
"The law on immigration cannot be punitive," said Kyenge.
Under current Italian law all irregular migrants are considered criminal suspects and anyone accused of facilitating landings is punished.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta meanwhile blamed Libya -- where the shipwrecked boat departed from -- and called for "stringent" measures to stem the flow.
He also called for more European assistance to cope with the influx, saying: "Italy cannot be the first country to have everything on its shoulders."
EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso will visit Lampedusa Wednesday, following an invitation from Letta to "come and see for himself".
Italy has requested that the refugee issue be put on the agenda of a meeting of European interior ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday and of a summit of EU leaders in Brussels at the end of the month.
"The Mediterranean cannot remain a huge open-air cemetery," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French media, adding: "The heads of state must translate their outrage into action".
But EU experts downplayed the prospect of any major reforms soon since immigration policies remain a national prerogative and are too politically controversial with electorates.
Local authorities on Lampedusa meanwhile struggled to cope with the new arrivals. The refugee centre has 250 places but is now housing more than 1,000 people including those from previous landings.
Many have been forced to sleep out in the open.
Forty unaccompanied minors aged between 11 and 17 are among the survivors who are staying there.
All the survivors apart from the captain, a Tunisian who is now under arrest, are Eritrean.
Some 30,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Italy so far in 2013 -- more than four times the number for last year. Most of them land on Lampedusa, which is closer to north Africa than to Italy.
Survivors on Saturday cried over their loved ones.
Each coffin was marked with a number and had a red rose placed on it, while each of the four white children's coffins had a teddy bear on top.
The best estimates of how many people were on board the vessel when it caught fire and sank range between 480 and 518 people, which would give a final death toll of between 325 and 363 people.
In the previous worst refugee tragedy in 1996, also off Italian shores, 283 migrants perished.
Pope Francis has dispatched to Lampedusa a personal representative, Polish monsignor Konrad Krajewski, who led a ceremony for the victims.
Francis meanwhile observed a moment of silence during his weekly Sunday address to thousands of pilgrims on St Peter's Square in the Vatican.
The pope said: "Let us all pray in silence for these brothers and sisters of ours, women, men, children. Let our hearts cry in silence."