Italy migrant crisis: Suspected people smugglers 'threatened migrants with knives' as 'they came out of cramped ship's hold to breathe'

Italian police have arrested 10 suspected smugglers

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The Independent Online

Police in Italy have detained a group of suspected people smugglers after they allegedly used knives to threaten migrants who had come up from the ship's packed hold to breathe.

Officials are holding 10 people on suspicion of smuggling and murder on Friday, for allegedly packing dozens of people into the airless hold of a boat where 52 bodies were found this week.

The ten detainees included a Libyan, who was the “violent” enforcer, seven Moroccans, and two Syrians.

Rescuers working on the Swedish ship Poseidon saved 439 people from the ship on Wednesday. By smashing through the deck to reach the hold, officials later discovered the remains of 52 people.

The victims most likely died of asphyxiation, according to Palermo prosecutor Maurizio Scalia.

Describing the boat's stifling conditions, he said the hold of the 20-meter boat contained about 60 people, was only about 1.5 meters high (four feet) high and 4 meters long, with two small windows and the boat's engine.

poseidon.jpg
A child's swimming vest used by migrants during a rescue operation by MSF and the Swedish Coast Guards "Poseidon" in the Meditterranean sea (Image: AFP PHOTO / GABRIELE FRANCOIS CASINI / MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERES)

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Those on-board hailed mostly from sub-Saharan Africa: Sudan, Senegal, Nigeria but also Pakistan and Bangladesh, he said.

On land, survivors from the ship told the authorities that the smugglers would beat people if they attempted to come of out the packed hold for air, said Carmine Mosca, head of the Palermo police squad.

“When theses migrants tried to relay their need for air and water, they were mishandled, injured, knifed in a truly fierce way,” Mosca said.

Scalia added that the alleged smugglers faced murder charges, rather than manslaughter, as they “eventually accepted the risk that these people, in these conditions, could die.”

This was the case as the crew leader “arbitrarily” sent migrants above or below deck as they boarded. 

In previous crossings, the smugglers would charge up to 4,000 euros ($4,520) apiece for places above deck, versus 1,000 euros below deck, and an additional fee if they wanted life jackets. However, that distinction wasn't used in this operation, Mosca said.

 

The detentions come after Libyan officials recovered the bodies of 105 people from a migrant boat which sank in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost 100 more are missing and feared dead, as it is believed that more people are trapped within the ship’s hold.

The vessel sank on Thursday after leaving the Libyan coastal town of Zuwara.

As the turbulent state lacks naval ships, Libyan officials used fishing boats and inflatables provided by locals to search the sea for survivors. By noon, around 198 people had been rescued, officials said.

Ayman Talaal, a Syrian survivor, standing next to his daughter told reporters: “The boat was in a bad condition and people died with us."

"We have been forced into this route. It's now called the grave of the Mediterranean Sea," he said.

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