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Tunisian captain of sunken migrant boat appears in Italian court

The Tunisian captain of a migrant boat that sank over the weekend has appeared in a court in Italy. Prosecutors accuse the man of causing the tragedy that killed some 700 people.

Mohammed Ali Malek, a 27-year-old Tunisian national, appeared before a judge in Sicily's Catania on Friday. He was accused of causing a migrant boat to capsize five days ago, killing nearly 700 people, mostly migrants from Africa and Asia.

The captain also faced potential charges of culpable homicide and of illegally confining refugees, after survivors told police that hundreds on board were locked into the hold or the lower deck. He was also believed to be under the influence of alcohol and hashish during the voyage from Libya to Italy.

Malek denied that he was in charge of the boat. "He says he's a migrant like all the others and he paid his fare to go on the boat," his lawyer Massimo Ferrante told Reuters news agency.

Witness testifies

The Tunisian showed little emotion at the court, where survivors testified on the events that unfolded at Sunday's tragedy. Mahmud Bikhit, believed to be a crew member in the boat, accused Malek of steering the vessel when it collided with a merchant ship coming to its rescue and capsized.

Mahmud Bikhi and Mohammed Ali Malek Police/Handout via Reuters

Mahmud Bikhit, left, and Mohammed Ali Malek, were arrested on suspicion of people trafficking

Prosecutors have not charged Bikhit as yet, but the 25-year-old Syrian could face accusations related to clandestine immigration, prosecutors said. His lawyer, Giuseppe Russo, insisted that his client had not yet been identified as the person handling the ship's motor. "We will have to establish who this individual was, who went down to check the engine room," Russo told reporters.

Witness spoke of four "light skinned" crew members, but two of these were engaged only in checking the level of the boat and it was not clear whether they survived the disaster.

Only 28 people managed to escape the boat which capsized Sunday, killing most of the 750 refugees on board. Over 1,000 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean in the past two weeks as they attempted to cross from conflict-ridden countries in Africa and Asia.

The refugee crisis has spurred the European Union to rethink its strategy on coping with humanitarian disasters and the influx of immigrants into the continent. More than 40,000 people have entered Europe since the beginning of this year.

mg/sms (AFP, Reuters)

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