Fishermen hauled up corpses from 'phantom wreck'

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The Independent Online

Four and a half years after distraught South Asian immigrants struggled to convince the Italian authorities that 283 of their companions had been killed in a collision off the coast of Sicily, the truth of their tale is only now emerging.

Four and a half years after distraught South Asian immigrants struggled to convince the Italian authorities that 283 of their companions had been killed in a collision off the coast of Sicily, the truth of their tale is only now emerging.

Local fishermen trawling the straits between Sicily and Malta have admitted that they often hauled up whole corpses or limbs in their nets in the months after the tragedy at Christmas in 1996.

But for fear of losing working days because of Italy's merciless bureaucracy, they threw the human remains back overboard and did not report what they found.

Had they done so, the tragedy would not have become known as "the phantom shipwreck" but the worst shipping disaster in the Mediterranean since the Second World War.

The story began on Christmas night 1996 when some 450 would-be immigrants on board a rusting ship, the Yiohan, were transferred to a smaller Maltese ferry boat that would carry them to Sicily. In heavy seas the two vessels collided and as the ferry sunk, only 29 of the passengers were saved.

The immigrant traffickers headed for Greece, swiftly dumped their cargo ­ mainly Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Indians ­ and disappeared.

The survivors' claims to the authorities were met with scepticism, especially when intermittent sea and air searches off the Sicilian coast found neither wreckage nor bodies.

However, what naval vessels failed to find was inadvertently discovered by fishermen.

A fisherman in the village of Portopalo has told the Rome daily newspaper la Repubblica that he pulled a corpse out of his nets in early January 1997.

The man said he had felt compassion but then remembered another fisherman who had once lost days of work after handing in a body.

"I picked it up and heard a thump, the head had fallen off the neck." he recalled. "I closed my eyes and heaved it overboard, then I gathered up the head and threw that back too." A local politician, priest and historian confirmed that many fishermen had had similar experiences.

Petro Candido, the captain of the coastguard at Portopalo, said he had often heard talk of corpses pulled up in the nets but no one had ever lodged an official report.

"I heard about this shipwreck from local gossip but no one ever came to tell me this, otherwise I could have opened an inquiry and informed my superiors," he said.

Another fisherman said people who regularly worked in the area all knew where the sunken ferry boat must be, and that many of his colleagues had found what appeared to be human bones among their catch of tuna.

Reminders of the lives of those who paid $2,000 (£1,400) to make the fatal voyage to Europe still come to the surface occasionally. A month ago, a plastic identity card belonging to Anpalagan Ganeshu, a 17-year-old Tamil whose brother Arulalagan was also drowned, was found and identified by the boy's uncle.

After the shipwreck, families of the victims wrote to Italian political leaders trying to establish the truth but were brushed off. Tana De Zulueta, a left-wing MP, tabled a parliamentary question but received no response. "It is a classic situation of transnational crime that is so hard to punish and despite all the evidence no one wanted to believe it had happened," she said.

Even after the Yiohan was discovered to have delivered another batch of immigrants to southern Italy, and the ship's captain, a 43-year-old Lebanese citizen named Youseef El Hallal, was traced to Marseilles, the Italian authorities were still sceptical about the maritime disaster. Youseef El Hallal went on trial in May but he was given bail and has since disappeared.

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