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Divers pull more bodies from Lampedusa migrant boat

A team of Italian divers has pulled 38 more bodies from the sunken smuggler's trawler that capsized off the island of Lampedusa last week. Authorities estimate the recovery efforts will take at least two more days.

Search teams on Monday recovered 38 bodies from the migrant boat that sank near the shores of Lampedusa, taking the number of bodies recovered to 232.

Thursday's shipwreck was one of the worst to hit vessels packed with undocumented migrants heading to one of the EU's most southerly entry points from Africa. Lampedusa is a regular destination for refugees and others seeking entry into the EU. Most of the roughly 500 people believed to be on board the ship hailed from Eritrea or Somalia; only 155 have been rescued.

The divers reached the trawler's hull for the first time on Monday, halting the day's operations once night fell. Rescuers believe they have found all the bodies around the ship or on deck, leaving the much more difficult prospect of extracting people from within the vessel, now a maze of floating debris.

"Mattresses, blankets, stairs: Anything that would float. Imagine if you put a house in a centrifuge and you see what winds up in the air. That is what happened," Navy Captain Paolo Trucco of the deep sea specialists said. He reported a similar situation with the victims themselves, describing "a wall of people" entangled within the wreckage.

Even with specialist equipment, the divers can only spend around half an hour at a time at the site of the wreck, 47 meters (154 feet) below the surface. Rescuers said that despite stormy weather expected overnight around Lampedusa, they remained confident that the operation would continue on Tuesday.

Tragedy to mobilize EU?

The ship, sailing from Libya to Lampedusa, capsized and sank within a kilometer of making landfall on Thursday. A fire and the subsequent panic on board prompted the vessel to sink. Tens of thousands of people from Africa and the Middle East attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Lampedusa each year, hundreds of them never make it.

European interior ministers were to discuss Lampedusa and asylum seekers in Luxembourg on Tuesday, while European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso arranged to visit the island on Wednesday.

Politicians at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday opened their session with a moment's silence to remember the victims.

"I hope this minute of silence can constitute a turning point for European Union policies," European Parliament President Martin Schulz said in Strasbourg. Schulz also said in an interview published in the German mass-circulation Bild newspaper on Monday that refugees "should be divided more fairly across Europe," saying countries like Germany were not doing enough.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, like his predecessors, has asked European partners for more help with Lampedusa's asylum seekers.

msh/ccp (AFP, AP, Reuters)