Italy will use drones and tripled sea patrols in bid to halt deadly migrant boat wrecks

Premier vows to boost military presence in wake of Lampedusa migrant tragedy

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The Independent Online

Italy is preparing to triple sea patrols off its southern coast to avoid a repeat of deadly shipwrecks of the kind that killed over 360 migrants near Lampedusa last week.

Premier Enrico Letta met senior ministers on Monday night to finalise plans to beef-up Italy’s military presence in the area, even as over-loaded migrant vessels continue to land in it ports.

“We’ve talked about Lampedusa and explained the sense of our military mission that will be operative from tomorrow,” Mr Letta told reporters, after talks with the Finnish premier Jyrki Katainen, which preceded the ministerial conference. “For us it’s intolerable that the Mediterranean is a sea of the dead.”

The Defence Minister Mario Mauro has said that unmanned drone aircraft based in Sicily could also be used to identify the packed and precarious migrant vessels, as well as a new radar to track the boats. “Everything should be ready between Monday and Tuesday for ‘Safe Sea’ mission,” Mr Mauro, said. “It will be an all-Italian initiative that will be in addition to existing European initiatives like Frontex.” Mr Letta also indicated he would like to see an Italian assume command of Frontex, the EC’s boarder protection agency.

After the meeting, the Mr Mauro announced plans for an amphibious landing craft with enhanced medical facilities and also upgraded helicopter services, as well ad drones for locating migrant vessels.

The interior minister Angelino Alfano said that greater international co-operation would be needed: "It's not a given that the intervention of an Italian ship will mean that migrants are taken to an Italian port," he said. "This will be decided on the basis of where an operation takes place."

The ministerial meeting comes as more rag-tag migrant vessels arrive at Italy’s shores. Overnight a Finance Police vessel came to the aid of around 80 child and 150 adult migrants from Syria, who landed in Calabria, southern Italy. Reports suggest human traffickers were among them. Separately, more than 200 migrants arrived in ports in eastern Sicily after being rescued on Sunday by an Italian merchant ship and a coastguard cutter. And another 250 migrants landed in Lampedusa at dawn this morning.

Italy is also calling on the European Union to provide more assistance, and has said that Lampedusa is the border of the whole continent, not just of Italy.

Mr Letta has said he will make the case for more assistance at a summit of EU leaders on 24-25 October.

The Syrian civil war and unrest in Egypt and other Arab and African countries have added to the constant flow of economic migrants. And many clandestine immigrants are leaving the African continent via an increasingly unstable Libya. Mr Mauro said the country needed to triple its presence in the southern Mediterranean largely as a result of the deteriorating security situation in Libya, which he said was currently a “non-state”.

His remarks were given substance by Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who told La Repubblica newspaper that, unlike in the time of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was currently in no position to stop the illegal wave of immigration from its shores to southern Europe. He said his country would need help with its deteriorating security situation to do so.

Debt-laden Italy has itself received more than €30m to help its overwhelmed immigration centres. The money is badly needed; with the arrival of hundreds more Tunisians at Lampedusa, the island’s holding centre is now at bursting point.

Meanwhile, over a hundred illegal Syrian immigrants have escaped the makeshift Palaspedini holding centre in the Sicilian port of Catania. Press reports said that most made a beeline for the city’s main railway station with the intention of reaching northern Europe.

The UN refugee agency estimates 32,000 asylum seekers have landed in Italy and Malta this year – many of them from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria.