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Search for bodies resumes off Italy's Lampedusa

Italian divers have resumed the search for bodies from Thursday’s shipwreck off the southern island of Lampedusa. More than 300 asylum seekers are thought to have died in the mishap.

A spokesman for the team of 40 drivers trying to recover the bodies confirmed on Sunday that the search, which was suspended on Friday due to rough sea conditions, had resumed.

"We will be working in three teams doing two hour shifts each. Because of the depth they can only stay down for six or seven minutes at most," Leonardo Ricci said, adding that the search would continue "as long as the sea is calm and there is light."

Ten more bodies were brought to the surface within a half hour of the operation resuming around 10 a.m. local time. This is in addition to the 111 bodies that had already been recovered on Friday.

On Saturday, some of the 155 survivors of the shipwreck visited the hangar of the island's airport, where the bodies of the victims have been collected.

An ongoing problem

The scope of Thursday's disaster, involving mainly Somalis and Eritreans trying to enter the European Union through Lampedusa, has refocused attention on what is an ongoing problem. Over the past 20 years, between 17,000 and 20,000 people are believed to have perished while trying to cross the Mediterranean to seek a better life in Europe. Lampedusa, which is closer to Africa than Italy, is the most frequent target of the would-be migrants, who pay people smugglers thousands of dollars each to take them on the journey.

Italy has renewed a call on the European Union to do more to help, with around 30,000 people having arrived so far on its territory this year alone. That's more than four times as many as in 2012.

It's not yet clear what exactly the EU is prepared to offer in the way of assistance, but at least Italy's latest plea appears to be falling on sympathetic ears. On Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta announced that European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso would visit Lampedusa on Wednesday.

Going after the people smugglers

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview with Europe 1 radio on Sunday that both Paris and Rome had asked for the problem to be put at the top of the agenda at a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Tuesday. He also called for an increase in funding for Frontex - the EU's external border security agency - and a crackdown on people smugglers "who make a lot of money on the back of people's deaths."

Fabius' German counterpart, Hans-Peter Friedrich, has also called for a crackdown on people smugglers. However, in comments published in Sunday's edition of the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, he also said more needed to be done to improve conditions in the countries that people are fleeing from. At the same time, though, he rejected that notion that Europe had made itself a fortress that was inaccessible to asylum seekers.

“So far this year, Germany alone has offered refuge to almost 80,000 people,” Friedrich said, adding that “we must do all we can to help those who are truly vulnerable.”

pfd/tj (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa, EPD)