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Anger in Italy over 30 migrant deaths

Picture released by the Italian navy on June 14, 2014 shows migrants being rescued from boats in the Mediterranean
Picture released by the Italian navy on June 14, 2014 shows migrants being rescued from boats in the Mediterranean

Anger erupted in Italy Monday over the deaths at sea of 30 migrants, as Rome stood accused of worsening a years-long crisis which has seen 5,000 desperate refugees rescued in the past 24 hours.

As officials in southern Italy warned they were overwhelmed by the arrivals, the EU announced a plan to help Rome deal with the refuges and combat people smuggling.

Rescuers found the latest migrant victims stuffed into the hold of a fishing boat from north Africa when they boarded to help the most vulnerable of almost 600 migrants in the vessel.

A navy doctor said the migrants had "likely suffocated" in the tiny space, and "advised against removing the bodies" as it was not yet clear whether there were poisonous gases in the hold which might affect others.

Critics rounded on the Italian government, charging that its migrant rescue operation, dubbed "Mare Nostrum" ("Our Sea"), was partly to blame for the crisis.

"Another 30 dead in a boat. Another 30 deaths on the consciences of those who defend 'Mare Lorum' (Their Sea)," said the head of the anti-immigration Northern League, Matteo Salvini.

The League has warned Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's government that plucking asylum seekers and migrants to safety from rickety boats only encourages more to set out across the Mediterranean for Europe.

"Renzi and Alfano's shirts are soaked in blood," Salvini said in a Facebook post, targeting the centre-left leader and his interior minister Angelino Alfano.

Maurizio Gasparri, the Senate leader of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, also blasted Renzi's "demented" navy operation and the "thousands of landings, deaths, tragedy, chaos. We cannot go on like this."

- Thousands more waiting -

The rescued fishing boat was being towed by the Italian navy and was expected to arrive Tuesday in Pozzallo on the southeast coast of Sicily.

"We cannot face this emergency alone," warned the mayor of Pozzallo, Luigi Ammatuna.

"The only two refrigerated rooms in the cemetery are occupied by the bodies of migrants. Where will we put the 30 victims of this atrocious tragedy?" he told ANSA news agency.

He said the area's reception centres were full, and that it would be impossible to take in the hundreds of migrants about to arrive.

Three military ships carrying over 1,000 migrants each are also expected to arrive in ports in southern Italy later Monday and Tuesday, the navy said.

Coast guard vessels and cargo ships carrying hundreds of others are set to arrive in Sicily, bringing the number rescued over the weekend to almost 5,500.

Italian rescuers have found migrants dead on overcrowded boats in the past, but never before in such a large number.

Alfano has called for Europe to take over the rescue operation amid reports of thousands more people waiting in Libya to make the trip during the next few weeks.

- Journeys of death -

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said the latest toll showed "we must urgently increase our efforts to fight the deadly activities" of people traffickers.

In a statement she said the European Commission was preparing a plan against people smuggling and freeing up four million euros ($5.46 million) in emergency funds, coupled with other possible financial aid, to "help Italy host migrants and refugees on their territory".

She also called on EU member states to work to resettle refugees directly from refugee camps in third countries, to avoid them having to set sail illegally for Europe.

Italy has long borne the brunt of refugees making the perilous crossing from north Africa to Europe, but EU border agency Frontex says there has been a significant rise in numbers in recent months.

The number of migrant arrivals has now soared past the record 63,000 set in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings.

A series of tragedies has struck in the last few weeks, with 10 people drowning and 39 having to be rescued after their boat sank off the Libyan coast earlier in June.

"No one can dream that these deaths will end while the journeys continue. They are journeys of hope, but increasingly end up as journeys of death," the archbishop of Agrigento in Sicily, Francesco Montenegro, told Radio Vatican.

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