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Italy premier leads calls for EU action on Mediterranean migrant deaths

Italy's premier is leading calls for EU action on the increasing number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, including a summit. EU foreign ministers are meeting to discuss the issue.

Following the latest sinking of a migrant boat off the coast of Libya at the weekend, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has called for EU action on the issue.

EU foreign and interior ministers are meeting in Luxembourg on Monday to discuss the crisis. They will also discuss the situation in war-torn Libya where up to 90 percent of the migrants begin their dangerous sea journey to Europe.

Ahead of the meeting of EU foreign policy chief Italian Federica Mogherini said: "With this latest tragedy ... we have no more excuses, the EU has no more excuses, the member states have no more excuses."

"The main issue here is to build a common sense of European responsibility, knowing that there is no easy solution," she added.

Survivors from the fishing boat, which sank on Saturday night, have said 950 people were on board. There are dwindling hopes for finding anyone alive. Captain Paolo Zottola of Italy's Guardia di Finanza, one of the police forces involved in search operations, said: "With the sea temperature being so cold around midnight, nobody could resist in the water for more than half an hour."

The 20-meter (70-foot) fishing boat sank late on Saturday night. Only 28 migrants were rescued. The coffins with the bodies of victims have been taken to Malta.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's office issued a statement on Monday saying German officials were "appalled" by the latest shipwreck. Describing the events as a "tragedy" spokesman Steffen Seibert said a response had to be found, even if there were no easy answers.

Sarah Tyler, a spokeswoman for the Save the Children humanitarian agency in Catania, Sicily, said "more than 1,000 people have died in the waters of the Mediterranean" in the last weeks. She added "that is almost as many as died on the Titanic, and 31 times the number who died when the Costa Concordia sank."

Renzi said that Libya was the key problem in originating the dangerous voyages for migrants across the Mediterranean. He said more needed to be done to stop boats organized by traffickers from leaving. He called it "the slavery of the 21st Century", and added: "It is unthinkable that in the face of such a tragedy, there isn't the feeling of solidarity which Europe has shown in other instances."

Children carried by rescue workers as they arrive with migrants on the boat at the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo

Children carried by rescue workers as they arrive with migrants on the boat at the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo

EU under fire

The EU has been criticized for its inaction since the 9-million-euro ($9.7 million) Mare Nostrum rescue operation was ended last October. Italy had failed to persuade European partners to help meet operating costs. Some EU members expressed fears that the operation was encouraging smugglers and migrants to organize more trips across the sea.

Mare Nostrum was replaced by a much smaller EU-run border protection program, named Triton, which operates only within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of the Italian coast.

William Lacy Swing, the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), called for the operation to be restored: "Mare Nostrum saved 200,000 lives between October 2013 and December 2014," he said on Monday. "Get Mare Nostrum back out there, give it the support it needs to save these lives."

Swing said the Triton operation was "not adequate."

"They don't have a mandate," Swing said. "They're a border protection agency, not a lifesaving agency."

Mogherini added a discussion of the crisis to the agenda of a foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.

In Greece, the coast guard is investigating why a boat carrying 83 migrants ran ashore off the island of Rhodes. Officials had received an emergency call from the boat on Monday morning. The vessel appears to have set sail from Turkey.

jm/jil (AFP, Reuters)

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