18 migrants die in new boat accident, Italy calls for EU action

Jean-Louis De La Vaissiere
In this file photo, migrants are seen sitting on the rocks on Lampedusa island, Italy, on October 26, 2013
In this file photo, migrants are seen sitting on the rocks on Lampedusa island, Italy, on October 26, 2013 (AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)

Rome (AFP) - Eighteen bodies were found Sunday aboard an inflatable dinghy adrift off Italy, media reported, amid a new surge of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

The dinghy, which was reportedly carrying 99 people, began to sink just as a rescue helicopter flew over it, an Italian navy captain told local television.

Captain Marco Bilardi of the Sirio said his crew discovered the dinghy after its motor had broken down.

"When our helicopter flew over the boat, she went down. There were people in the water. Lifejackets and flotation rings were thrown to them," he told SkyTG24 television.

The Sirio crew recovered 73 people, while survivors said eight others had been aboard and had not been found, he added. All the victims were men, Bilardi said.

More than 3,500 people have been rescued since Friday in the stretch of sea between Sicily and the Libyan and Tunisian coasts, the Italian news agency ANSA said.

On Friday at least 170 Africans drowned when their wooden boat went down off the Libyan coast.

Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano slammed the European Union on Sunday for ignoring the crisis, saying it was "blind to what is happening".

In another rescue early Sunday, 215 migrants -- including 55 women and 38 children -- were taken aboard the Italian naval vessel Fenice.

Meanwhile, the vessel the San Giusto was transporting hundreds of other migrants plucked from the sea off Libya to the Italian mainland. Most were Syrians and Lebanese, some suffering severe dehydration.

After two major shipwrecks last October that left more than 400 migrants dead, Italy launched a large-scale naval deployment dubbed "Mare Nostrum".

On Friday, some 170 African migrants were lost asea after the foundering of their wooden boat, prompting the Italian government to call for immediate EU action.

Alfano said Brussels had to do more to help Italy with the crisis.

"They are blind, they don't see what is happening. The worse the problem in the Mediterranean gets, the more we realise that Mare Nostrum must be replaced by European action," he told the Corriere della Sera daily.

Most of the migrants making the risky and often deadly journeys come from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria, but there are also many arriving from across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

More than 100,000 migrants have landed in Italy so far this year, according to the UN refugee agency -- far higher than the previous record of some 60,000 who arrived in 2011 at the height of the turmoil triggered by the Arab Spring revolutions. Many travelled on to other European countries.