Saving 'poor souls' on Europe's southern edge

LAMPEDUSA (AFP) - For the officers at coast guard headquarters on Italy's Lampedusa island, a normal day is nothing of the sort as they are called out time and again to rescue boat-loads of stricken asylum-seekers floundering off the coast.

The men and women here patrolling Europe's southern frontier often rely on the most basic alert system - a satellite phone call from a crewman asking for help.

They scour their radars for the stricken vessel, dispatch a helicopter with searchlight and set sail on cutters with infrared radars to follow cries for help.

"Rescue operations are often dramatic, in rough seas," coast guard spokesman Filippo Marini said at the busy control room overlooking the island's harbour.

"We arrive at night and find them clinging on to the sides of the dinghy, and it's not easy to save them."

Sometimes aid arrives too late: on Thursday, a boatload of Eritrean and Somalian refugees caught fire and sank just hundreds of metres from the coast.

Rescuers pulled 155 people from the sea but over 300 people are feared dead and divers off the remote island have spent days fishing bodies from the water.

As EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso flies in on Wednesday to pay homage to the drowned, no place illustrates better the scale of the challenge posed by the growing influx of refugees trying to reach Europe.

"The sea was full of floating corpses, and we had to pull them out and see their lifeless eyes," border guard marshal Alessandro Falcone said.

"It left a bitter taste, it's still hard to talk about."

The EU's executive is pushing for extra resources to launch sea patrols at Europe's doors in the aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedy, with stepped-up operations by the Frontex border guard service from Cyprus to Spain.

The remote island is Italy's southernmost point and closer to the African continent than to the rest of the country.

Italy has appealed to EU states for help in coping with the thousands that are washing up on its shores every month, and wants migration to be put on the agenda of summit talks in Brussels at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, the arrivals continue: nearly 150 Syrians including 28 children were rescued in Italian waters on Tuesday, a day after 250 immigrants were saved.

"The crews often hardly have time to come back to shore, unload those rescued, refuel and wash their faces before they head back out to help other people. The physical and psychological challenge is considerable," Mr Marini said.

Officers work in shifts to keep patrolling in the night.

The asylum seekers set out in overcrowded, rickety fishing boats or dinghies from the African coast, with just a satellite phone to call for help.

Without tracking systems onboard, it's impossible to spot that they are anything but standard fishing boats, so border guards rely on infrared systems to zone in on people cramped together in the prow or the hold.

"With our night-visions systems we can see the types of boats - sailing, fishing or dingy - and from about 500m away we can see whether the vessels are crammed full of people who may be in trouble," Mr Falcone said.

The cutters are equipped with special Formula 1-style seats in the cockpit, locking the crew firmly in place as they speed out over choppy waves.

"In rough seas, it's often extremely difficult to pull up alongside and transfer the immigrants off their doomed vessel. The waters are never calm, there are always problems and some of the dinghies flip right over," he said.

The cutters are designed to right themselves should they be tossed upside down by the waves, and the stern can lie flat to ease boarding behind.

The crews of 12 can spend months or even years on operations together, and Mr Falcone said such close-knit relationships help hugely when tragedies strike.

"This latest catastrophe has left us all shaken, but we cannot dwell on the dead, we have to be back out there looking to help the next poor souls."