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Captain's error, overcrowding to blame in disaster

April 21, 2015

Italian authorities have said the Mediterranean's deadliest migrant boat disaster was caused by a combination of mistakes by the captain and the ship being impossibly overcrowded. Some 800 people are feared dead.

Life ring
Image: DW/B. Riegert

Only 28 people survived Sunday's disaster, in which 800 people are feared to have drowned. Among them were two men who were arrested and taken to the Sicilian port of Catania by the Italian coast guard.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Sunday's incident was the "deadliest" ever recorded in the Mediterranean.

The captain, named as 27-year-old Tunisian Mohammed Ali Malek, has been arrested on suspicion of multiple murders, causing a shipwreck and aiding illegal immigration.

Crew member and Syrian national Mahmud Bikhit, 25, has also been detained on suspicion of aiding illegal immigration.

Steering mistakes

Prosecutors said on Tuesday that the former fishing trawler capsized after a collision with a Portuguese container ship, which had been caused by steering mistakes by the captain and the panicked movements of the hundreds of migrants packed onto the 20-meter (66-foot) boat.

The crew aboard the Portuguese container ship, however, has been absolved of any responsibility for the tragedy.

"On the basis of what has emerged, no blame can be accorded to the crew of the merchant ship which came to rescue and in no way contributed to the fatal event," Catania prosecutors said in a statement.

'Akin to slave traders'

The Italian government has pledged that every effort will be made to salvage what remains of the boat, which the prosecutors said would be vital to the investigation.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi described the traffickers who packed their human cargo into the boat as akin to 18th-century slave traders.

Following Sunday's disaster, European Union foreign and interior ministers met on Monday in Luxembourg, where they agreed on a 10-point plan designed to counter the rising numbers of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.

Death toll 30 times higher than last year

According to figures released on Tuesday by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 1,750 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean since the start of the year - some 30 times more than during the same period of 2014.

"IOM now fears the 2014 total of 3,279 migrant [deaths] on the Mediterranean may be surpassed this year in a matter of weeks, and could well top 30,000 by the end of the year, based on the current death toll," spokesman Joel Millman said.

ksb/kms (AFP, AP)