- POSTED: 06 Oct 2013 01:28
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Italy denied accusations on Saturday that rescue efforts were delayed in a shipwreck tragedy in which 300 African migrants are feared dead, as EU states eyed talks on the refugee crisis next week.
LAMPEDUSA, Italy: Italy denied accusations on Saturday that rescue efforts were delayed in a shipwreck tragedy in which 300 African migrants are feared dead, as EU states eyed talks on the refugee crisis next week.
Rough seas around the island of Lampedusa have suspended the search, and controversy has erupted over possible delays in the rescue and unsanitary conditions in which child survivors are living.
The coast guard said it only took 20 minutes to reach the scene of the disaster near the shore after being alerted and not 45 minutes or an hour as claimed by some people who rushed to help.
It also rejected charges of having prevented private boats from joining the rescue once emergency services were in place, with spokesman Filippo Marini dismissing the claims as "stupid".
But Marcello Nizza, a tourist who was out fishing that night and said he was the first on the scene, said: "I could have saved more if help had come in time and if they had allowed us to go out again."
There were also questions about why radars failed to spot the boat, as dramatic amateur video footage emerged showing a young Eritrean man being hauled aboard a private boat in the chaotic rescue.
"You have to search or 480 people are going to die!" he is heard saying in the video released by Italian TG2 news, before bursting into tears and spitting out sea water, exclaiming "Oh my God!"
Emergency workers have recovered 111 bodies so far and plucked 155 survivors from the sea.
They said some of the bodies may have been swept out to sea by strong currents and forever lost.
It is feared the toll could rise to 300 or more, which would make this the worst ever Mediterranean refugee tragedy after a previous one in 1996, also off Italian shores, claimed 283 lives.
"We have a legal but also a moral responsibility to recover all the bodies," said Leonardo Ricci, a spokesman for rescuers on the island of Lampedusa.
He said there was a "preliminary plan" to raise the wreck filled with corpses from the seabed.
Divers spoke of "dozens, maybe hundreds" of bodies trapped in the wreckage, which lies on the seabed at a depth of around 40 metres (130 feet).
Fishermen from the island, which has a population of just 6,000 and is closer to north Africa than to mainland Italy, took their boats out to sea and laid a wreath in a commemoration for the drowned.
Italy has asked the European Union for greater assistance in stemming the influx of refugees, with 30,000 reported to have landed so far this year - more than four times the number for all of 2012.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called on Saturday for a meeting of European countries on border management after the tragic shipwreck.
Italy has asked for the growing refugee influx to be put on the agenda of a meeting of European interior ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday.
In Italy there have also been growing calls for an overhaul of legislation against people accused of facilitating irregular immigration, a provision that critics say could penalise potential rescuers.
One of the survivors is the boat's 35-year-old Tunisian skipper, who has been detained.
The Tunisian was already held in April over a previous landing and deported back to Tunisia.
Local prosecutor Ignazio Fonzo said the inquiry was proving "difficult" because survivors being heard as witnesses were considered suspects under the law and therefore had to be provided with defence lawyers as well as interpreters.
The boat left Libya with an estimated 450 to 500 on board, mostly Eritreans and Somalis.
Survivors said they set fire to a blanket to alert the coast guard when the boat began taking on water just a few hundred metres (yards) from Italy's coast.
The fire quickly spread, causing panic, and the boat capsized and eventually sank as its terrified passengers jumped into the sea which was thick with fuel oil that had spilled from the boat.
Witnesses spoke of hellish scenes at dawn on Thursday and those plucked from the sea were almost all naked or bare-chested as they stripped down to try and stay afloat longer in the waters.
Forty unaccompanied minors aged 11 to 17 were among the survivors are being accommodated in a 250-bed refugee centre that is housing around 1,000 people, with many forced to sleep outside.
After touring the centre with a parliamentary group, Khalid Chaouki, a Moroccan-born Italian lawmaker, said: "We found shameful conditions, which are not worthy of a civilised society".