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Italy divers recover more refugee bodies from wreck

A coast guard boat patrols near Lampedusa harbour in Italy on October 5, 2013
A coast guard boat patrols near Lampedusa harbour in Italy on October 5, 2013

Divers in Italy recovered 17 more bodies on Monday from a shipwreck in which over 300 African asylum seekers may have died, as EU states prepared to address the growing refugee crisis.

Hundreds of rescuers and army personnel have been deployed to the island of Lampedusa whose seas were described as a "giant cemetery", with 211 bodies now pulled from the water.

A fishing boat packed with around 500 Eritrean and Somali migrants capsized and sank on Thursday after its captain set fire to a T-shirt to signal distress to coast guards, sparking panic on board.

Coffins are picture in a hangar at the Lampedusa airport on October 5, 2013 after a boat with migrants sank killing more than  a hundred people
Coffins are picture in a hangar at the Lampedusa airport on October 5, 2013 after a boat with migrants sank killing more than a hundred people

The boat was within sight of the shore but many could not swim and survivors spoke of being in waters thick with fuel oil that spilled from the wreck for hours before help came.

Emergency services managed to save 155 people.

Many of the traumatised Eritrean survivors are living in unsanitary conditions in an overcrowded refugee centre, while the bodies are being stored in rows of coffins in a giant airport hangar.

A child's drawing depicts the story of a shipwreck on October 3 in which hundreds of refugees died, seen in a school on the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 7, 2013
A child's drawing depicts the story of a shipwreck on October 3 in which hundreds of refugees died, seen in a school on the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 7, 2013

Divers have described the horrific sight of the bodies trapped in the wreck under water at a depth of around 50 metres (160 feet), many still in the contorted poses in which they drowned.

"There are a lot of young people. You imagine seeing your own children. It is really a tragic scene," said Angelo Vesto, an army officer responsible for transporting the black body bags.

A child's drawing depicts the story of a shipwreck on October 3 in which hundreds of refugees died, seen in a school on the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 7, 2013
A child's drawing depicts the story of a shipwreck on October 3 in which hundreds of refugees died, seen in a school on the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 7, 2013

European interior ministers are to discuss the influx of asylum-seekers at talks in Luxembourg on Tuesday and EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso will travel to Lampedusa on Wednesday.

Barroso's office said the Commission remained committed to "further measures and concrete actions" to help the refugees and the member states taking them in, as well as third countries.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has asked for more European assistance but has also blamed the lax border controls in Libya, the departure point for many of the boats, including the latest shipwrecked vessel.

Tombs of unidentified migrants in the cemetery on the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 7, 2013
Tombs of unidentified migrants in the cemetery on the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 7, 2013

Some 30,000 asylum-seekers have landed in Italy so far this year -- more than four times the number from 2012, although still below the 50,000 in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring revolts.

The majority are Eritrean, Somalis and Syrians.

Most arrivals come to Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost point, an island of just 20 square kilometres (almost eight square miles) and one of the biggest gateways for irregular migration to Europe.

A migrant rests inside the Temporary Permanance Centre refugee camp on the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 6, 2013
A migrant rests inside the Temporary Permanance Centre refugee camp on the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 6, 2013

"This island has the most beautiful beaches in the world but it has become a giant cemetery for the drowned at sea," said Filippo Bruno, a 57-year-old fisherman.

"Europe has to get its act together and do something before this happens again. And it will happen again," Bruno said.

Italy has said it wants the issue discussed at a summit of European leaders in Brussels later in the month, although EU experts say the chances of any major change soon are slim since immigration policies remain a prerogative of member states.

One survivor, 25-year-old Ali, struggled to hold back tears as he spoke to AFP of the moment the boat capsized after the captain lit his signal.

"When the people saw the fire, they went to the other side and the ship lost its balance. A lot of persons sank down. The terror began."

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