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Skulls found on Mafia ship laden with toxic waste

Cameras sent down to investigate vessel appear to show human remains

Pressure is growing on the Italian government to act over revelations that 30 or more ships with radioactive cargoes, deliberately sunk by the Mafia, may be polluting the Mediterranean.

The Calabrian region in the south of the country last night threatened to bypass Rome and petition the European Commission directly for help in dealing with the potential environmental disaster, while in another development investigators said that human remains may have been found on one ship – raising the possibility of a murder inquiry.

Silvestro Greco, head of the region's environment agency, lambasted the response by ministers to the apparent discovery of one of the missing toxic waste vessels, the Cunsky, 18 miles off the Calabrian coast.

"It has been 11 days since the boat was found and there has been not a single sign from the government," he said. "We do not believe this silence is normal."

Mr Greco added that "the entire Mediterranean, from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian sea and from the Strait of Sicily to the Aegean" could be threatened by sunken waste ships. "Cleaning and removing the load will be particularly complex in terms of cost, given the vast area involved," he said.

Sebastiano Venneri, vice-president of the environmental pressure group Legambiente, told The Independent there were fears that leaking radioactivity may already have been absorbed by plankton. If that is the case, there is a risk that it will make its way into the food chain.

Aurelio Garritano, the deputy-mayor of Longobardi, a town close to the Cunsky wreck, noted that no environmental tests for toxic waste had yet been carried out. "We cannot continue like this, the government must intervene," he said.

With this in mind, the Calabria region will write to the Italian environment minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo, calling for radical cabinet action. Failing that, Italy's council of regional governments would appeal directly to the EC, Mr Greco said.

The possibility of a murder inquiry also arose last night after it emerged that cameras sent down to investigate the Cunsky appeared to show human remains aboard.

Bruno Giordano, the public prosecutor for the Calabrian coastal town of Paola, told The Independent: "It appeared to show what were two human skulls. Obviously this will have to be investigated as well. As will claims that there are 30 or more other vessels out there in the Mediterranean."

The scandal of the sunken waste ships hit the headlines earlier this month after a former member of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate turned informer directed investigators to underwater remains thought to be those of the Cunsky, one of the missing vessels.

The informer, Francesco Fonti, told prosecutors he had been involved in the sinking of the ship in 1992, in order to dispose of 120 barrels of radioactive sludge. He added that he had also taken part in the sinking of two other ships, the Yvonne A and the Voriais.

Mr Fonti, who is now under house arrest, claimed that he knew of at least 30 more vessels sunk by the Calabrian mafia in Italian waters. He said the waste came from European pharmaceutical companies, and the Mafia was paid between $2m and $20m to sink the ships.

The Ansa news agency yesterday reported that up to 39 vessels carrying toxic or radioactive waste produced by European chemical or pharmaceutical companies may have been sunk in the racket.