6 migrants drown off popular Sicilian beach

ROME (AP) — Rescuers saved about 250 migrants who tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea from northern Africa to southern Europe in flimsy boats on Saturday, but six migrants drowned when their vessel got stuck off a popular Sicilian beach resort, authorities said.

The dead were among some 100 migrants whose 18-meter-long (60-foot) wooden fishing boat ran aground off Catania, Sicily, said Italian Coast Guard Capt. Roberto D’Arrigo.

The bodies of two of the victims were found around dawn by rescuers on a beach where many Catania residents and vacationers use lounge chairs and umbrellas to enjoy the sea, while the other four bodies were pulled out of the water just off shore, said D’Arrigo.

“Either they didn’t know how to swim or they were exhausted” from the voyage, D’Arrigo said in a telephone interview from Catania. The sea just off shore is tricky for swimmers, he said, since there are sandbars which alternate with deep sections of water.

The fishing boat snagged on the sandbar about 20 or so meters (66 feet) off shore, he said. “Many others jumped into the sea and made it ashore,” while the other survivors stayed aboard the boat and waited for coast guard rescuers, D’Arrigo said.

Early risers who went to the beach in Italy were stunned by the sight of the bodies left by rescuers on the sand.

The owner of one of the bathing establishments said he saw some of the migrants running from the shore to a nearby road. “I saw a group of them trying to make it to the road from the beach” and called authorities, said Dario Monteforte.

D’Arrigo said authorities couldn’t rule out that some migrants who swam to land might have dashed away before rescuers arrived. Some survivors told authorities they were Egyptian or Syrian, although it will take police time to check their identities, he said.

It is rare for smugglers’ often unseaworthy vessels filled with migrants to aim for Italian shores near cities, and D’Arrigo said the boat apparently made a navigational error while trying to reach secluded shores undetected. Luxury cruise liners frequently anchor off shore from Catania to admire Mount Etna, an active volcano, rising up behind the city.

Another tragedy occurred off Spain.

There, officials said Coast Guard vessels and emergency services rescued 70 migrants who were trying to reach the Spanish coastline by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar aboard 10 inflatable dinghies in dangerously windy conditions.

One dinghy overturned, with its occupants spilling into the sea. Seven men and a girl suffering from severe hypothermia were plucked out of the water. The child was flown by helicopter to Algeciras, Spain, official said.

Also on Saturday, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Catania, Italian rescuers saved 83 migrants after their boat had problems off the coast near Syracuse, the Italian news agency LaPresse reported. It said around 40 of those aboard were either women or children.

On the beach in Catania, Monteforte, sounding shaken, said he was closing his establishment to the public for the day. “The contrast is too strong, seeing a cruise ship in the background and migrants” on the beach, he said.

Each year, thousands of people, many of them from the Horn of Africa or elsewhere on the continent, or from the Middle East, attempt the perilous journey in hope of finding jobs or relatives in Europe. Smugglers put them in often rickety fishing boats or motorized rubber dinghies whose engines sometimes fail. Countless migrants drown or die of dehydration and their bodies are tossed overboard, according to survivors’ accounts.

Unless the migrants can prove they have jobs or relatives awaiting them in Europe or are eligible for political asylum, they receive expulsion orders. While Italian authorities determine their status, the migrants who are found on Italian shores or rescued at sea are kept in often overcrowded and bleak detention centers, many of them in Sicily.

In July, Pope Francis visited Lampedusa, a tiny Sicilian fishing island closer to northern Africa than to the Italian mainland, where many of the migrants arrive after voyages that began on Libyan or other north African shores. During the trip, the pontiff decried what he called the general indifference of the world to those who risk or lose their lives, attempting journeys to the shores of more affluent countries.

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Marcos Moreno contributed to this report from Algeciras, Spain, and Harold Heckle from Madrid, Spain.

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