Lino Azzopardi / AP Photo

Italy arrests captain of capsized migrant ship

Arrest comes hours after EU meeting on migrant crises, prompted by deaths of hundred after boat sank off Libya

Italian prosecutors said Tuesday that they arrested the captain and a crew member of the boat in which as many as 900 people are feared to have drowned in the unremitting waves of migrants seeking to escape from war-torn Libya.

Even as the search continued for victims of the weekend disaster, coast guard ships rushed to respond to new distress calls on the high seas — two off Libya and a third boat that ran aground near Greece.

Assistant Prosecutor Rocco Liguori said the Tunisian captain and Syrian crew member were arrested aboard the rescue boat that brought 27 survivors from the deadly shipwreck to Sicily. The two were charged with favoring illegal immigration and the captain was also charged with reckless multiple homicide in relation to the sinking.

Decrying what he called an "escalation in these death voyages," Italian Premier Matteo Renzi urged Europe to put the focus on preventing more boats from leaving Libya, the source of 90 percent of migrant traffic to Italy.

"We are facing an organized criminal activity that is making lots of money, but above all ruining many lives," Renzi said at a joint news conference with Malta's prime minister, Joseph Muscat. He compared their activity to that of slave traders of centuries past, "unscrupulous men who traded human lives."

EU foreign ministers met Monday under pressure to produce more than words to save migrants drowning in the Mediterranean as the first bodies were taken to shore of hundreds feared killed in a shipwreck while trying to reach Europe.

Italy and Malta were working to rescue another two migrant boats with about 400 people off the coast of Libya on Monday. Hundreds of miles to the east, coast guards fought to save scores of migrants from another vessel destroyed after running aground off the Greek island of Rhodes.

Greece’s coast guard said at least three people were killed there. Television pictures showed survivors clinging to floating debris while rescuers pulled them from the waves.

European officials are struggling to come up with a policy to respond more humanely to an exodus of migrants traveling by sea from Africa and Asia to Europe, without worsening the crisis by encouraging more to leave. EU officials will meet Thursday for an emergency summit.

"Search and rescue alone is not a silver bullet," said German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere. "If you just organize search and rescue, criminals who get the refugees on board will send more boats."

Stopping the traffickers will be a key item on the summit agenda, along with a proposal to double spending on sea patrols off Europe's southern border. The 10-point plan includes a proposal to take "civil-military" action modeled on Europe's anti-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia, to capture and destroy boats used by traffickers.

An Italian search and rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, was canceled last year because of its cost and domestic political pressure. It was replaced by a smaller-scale EU mission, Triton, with a smaller budget and narrower remit.

"The reputation of Europe is at stake," said Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni. "I have been saying for weeks and months that Europe has to do more. Now, unfortunately, the reality has hit us in the face."

However, there are differing views about what needs to be done, from ramping up costly search and rescue operations to trying to intervene in lawless Libya, where the vast majority of migrant boats originate.

Muscat said Monday the United States should mandate a force to intervene directly in Libya to disrupt or attack traffickers and stop the boats from setting off.

Lawlessness in Libya, where two rival governments are fighting for control, has made it almost impossible to police the criminal gangs, which can charge thousands of dollars to bring mainly sub-Saharan Africans to Europe.

"I believe that the [European] focus should be what should be done in Libya to stop the boats," said Muscat, who is in Rome on Monday to meet with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. "Unless something is done about Libya, these scenes will be repeating themselves."

Last week about 400 migrants were reported to have died attempting to reach Italy from Libya when their boat capsized.

Before Sunday's disaster, the International Organization for Migration estimated that 20,000 migrants reached the Italian coast this year and that 900 died.

If the toll is confirmed in Sunday's tragedy, as many as 1,800 people have died trying to migrate across the Mediterranean since the start of this year. By the end of April last year, fewer than 100 had died out of 26,000 who crossed, according to the group's estimates.

The number of migrants normally surges in the summer, meaning far more people are likely to attempt the voyage in coming months. Last year 174,000 made the journey successfully, and about 3,200 died.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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