Boat skipper facing mass murder charge over Mediterranean migrant ship disaster

CATANIA, Italy (AFP) - The captain of a migrant boat that capsized in the Mediterranean’s deadliest disaster in decades was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of causing the deaths of an estimated 800 people.

Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania said they believed Tunisian national Mohammed Ali Malek, 27, was responsible for steering mistakes and the reckless overcrowding which led to the horrifying shipwreck off Libya on Sunday.

Crew member and Syrian national Mahmud Bikhit, 25, was also arrested in a probe into a catastrophe that has evoked chilling comparisons with the slave trade and allegations of callous disregard on the part of European governments.

The captain was held on suspicion of multiple murder, causing a shipwreck and aiding illegal immigration. Bikhit faces potential charges on the latter count. Both men were to be put before a judge later Tuesday.

Hundreds of the victims, including an unknown number of children, will have died in hellish circumstances having been locked in the hold or the middle deck of the 20-metre boat which keeled over in pitch darkness after colliding with a Portuguese container ship answering its distress call.

The Catania prosecutors said the collision had been caused by steering mistakes by the captain and the panicked movements of the hundreds of passengers.

“On the basis of what has emerged, no blame can be accorded to the crew of the merchant ship which came to rescue and in no way contributed to the fatal event,” they said in a statement.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has described the traffickers who packed their human cargo into the boat as akin to 18th-century slave traders.

The UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the horror at sea had been produced by a “monumental failure of compassion” on the part of European governments who are now under intense pressure to address the humanitarian crisis on their southern shores.

- Wheelchair survivor -

The first of the 27 survivors who disembarked in Sicily in the early hours did so in a wheelchair. All of them were deeply traumatised, said Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“They are exhausted, they have nothing left,” she said. “They are in a state of shock, they look completely lost.” Most of the survivors and the victims appear to have been young men but there were also several children aged between 10 and 12, she added.

“We have not yet been able to ask them about this but it seems certain that many of them will have had friends and family who were lost in the wreck.”

At talks in Luxembourg on Monday, EU ministers agreed on a 10-point plan to double the resources available to maritime border patrol mission Triton and further measures will be discussed at a summit of EU leaders on Thursday.

Critics say Triton is woefully inadequate and are demanding the restoration of a much bigger Italian operation suspended last year because of cost constraints.

The survivors, who hailed from Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Somalia, Eritrea and Bangladesh, were all recovering Tuesday at holding centres near Catania on Sicily’s eastern coast.

Sunday’s disaster was the worst in a series of migrant shipwrecks that have claimed more than 1,700 lives this year – 30 times higher than the same period in 2014 – and nearly 5,000 since the start of last year.

In that time nearly 200,000 migrants have made it to Italy, mostly after being rescued at sea by the Italian navy and coastguard.

Italian officials believe there could be up to one million more would-be immigrants to Europe waiting to board boats in conflict-torn Libya.

Many of them are refugees from Syria’s civil war or persecution in places like Eritrea. Others are seeking to escape poverty and hunger in Africa and south Asia and secure a better future in Europe.

- Australia’s example -

Despite the prosect of further loss of life, a number of EU governments are reluctant to expand search-and-rescue operations, arguing that they only encourage migrants to attempt the crossing.

That view was endorsed by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who said Europe should follow his government’s lead by deploying military forces to turn migrant boats back to Africa.

“The only way you can stop the deaths is in fact to stop the boats,” Abbott said.

Australia’s policy has drastically reduced the number of asylum-seekers arriving on its soil and deaths at sea. Critics say this has been achieved at the expense of the country breaching its international asylum obligations.

Ideas being looked at by the EU including trying to capture or destroy people-smuggling boats and a pilot scheme for the fast-track return of migrants to their home countries.

Italy is studying the possibility of mounting “targeted interventions” against Libya-based people smugglers – but experts are sceptical about the likelihood of this ever happening.

More than 1,000 people have been arrested in recent years in connection with trafficking operations but Italian officials acknowledge most of them are small fry and that the gangsters making multi-million dollar profits from the trade are still mostly at large.

Two other suspected people smugglers were arrested in Greece Tuesday after a yacht carrying 93 migrants crashed onto rocks on the island of Rhodes, killing two adults and one child.