Italy to step up patrols for migrant ships

Prime minister Enrico Letta says ‘air and naval package’ will be put in place to try to prevent shipwreck fatalities

The caskets of two children who died when their boat capsized are lifted to be embarked on an Italian navy ship at Lampedusa island harbour at the weekend.  Photograph: Amedeo Fragapane/AP Photo

The caskets of two children who died when their boat capsized are lifted to be embarked on an Italian navy ship at Lampedusa island harbour at the weekend. Photograph: Amedeo Fragapane/AP Photo

Mon, Oct 14, 2013, 01:00

Italy is to step up naval and air patrols in the southern Mediterranean to try to prevent repeats of the shipwrecks which have drowned hundreds of African migrants this month.

Italian prime minister Enrico Letta said late on Saturday an “air and naval package” would be put in place south of Sicily, where tens of thousands of migrants in flimsy, overcrowded boats have made the crossing from Africa so far this year.

Italian officials have been increasingly worried by the uncontrolled arrivals from a region destabilised by the civil war in Syria, chaos in Libya and unrest in Egypt and elsewhere.

“We intend to triple our presence, in terms of both men and means, in the southern Mediterranean, for a military-humanitarian mission that has been made necessary in part by the fact that Libya is currently a ‘non-state’,” Italian defence minister Mario Mauro told the daily Avvenire newspaper.


‘Strong action’
He said operational and financial details of the deployment were being worked out and could involve more patrol vessels or more powerful ships with greater surveillance capacity. “We need strong action to stop these shipwrecks out to sea,” he said.

Italian media reported that unmanned drone aircraft based in Sicily could be used to identify boats in trouble.

In addition to coast guard and frontier police vessels, the Italian navy has three vessels supported by four helicopters patrolling the area, and two surveillance aircraft with night-vision capabilities in support.

Italy and Malta, which have borne the brunt of the crisis, have asked for more funds from the EU and called for the migrant emergency to be put on the agenda of the next European Council meeting on October 24th and 25th.

“The fact is that as things stand, we are just building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea,” said Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat.


Libyan stability needed
Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan backed calls for more action from Europe following a meeting with Mr Muscat in Tripoli yesterday, but the Maltese prime minister said no real progress would be made until order was restored along the African coast. “To have a permanent solution or at least a better way of dealing with the issue of illegal emigration, there needs to be stability in Libya,” he said.

At least 34 people died on Friday and 206 were rescued when a boat capsized and sank south of Sicily. The incident came just over a week after more than 350 Eritrean and Somali migrants drowned just off the southern island of Lampedusa.

Yesterday, Italian vessels rescued about 400 people from a struggling boat about 100km (60 miles) south of Lampedusa, while another boat carrying about 100 people was picked up by Maltese rescuers, an Italian coast guard official said.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the international community had to address the root causes of the crisis. – (Reuters)