Italy arrested five North African men on Friday on suspicion of multiple homicide and human trafficking in the presumed drowning of more than 200 people, saying they had used clubs and knives against migrants.
Most of the dead were locked in the hold of a boat which sank off the coast of Libya on Wednesday. Police said many children were believed to be among those who perished.
Two Libyans, two Algerians and a Tunisian, ranging in age from 21 to 24, were placed under formal arrest in Palermo after being questioned on Thursday. Police had earlier mistakenly identified the Tunisian as a Libyan.
Police said the accused men had charged the migrants between $1,200 and $1,800 for the voyage, depending on where they would be placed on the deck of the boat. Those in the hold paid about half as much as those above, they added.
The boat was carrying some 650 people.
Italian vessels and the Irish Navy’s LÉ Niamh rescued more than 400 migrants and recovered 26 bodies, including three children. Police arrested the men after speaking to survivors during the night after they arrived in Palermo.
A police reconstruction based on witnesses’ accounts said three of the men, part of a Libyan-based human trafficking ring, alternated steering the boat while the other two kept watch over the migrants.
“The arrested are suspected of causing the confirmed deaths of 26 migrants and the presumed deaths of about 200 people who, according to witnesses, were locked in the hold of the boat that capsized,” a police statement said.
Police said that about three hours into the journey from Libya, the boat started taking water in the hold, which was packed with mostly African migrants.
The traffickers ordered them to bail out the water but they were unable to do so and tried to break out of the hold. They were beaten back with knives, clubs and belts.
Migrants on the deck were ordered to sit on the hatch of the hold to prevent those below from getting out.
Migrants marked with knives
The traffickers marked the heads of migrants who disobeyed orders with knife cuts, particularly the sub-Saharan Africans. Arab migrants, on the other hand, were mostly beaten with belts, police said.
The migrants drowned when the boat flipped over as the LÉ Niamh approached. The episode was the latest in a long string of migration-related disasters in the Mediterranean.
The survivors confirmed that there were between 650 and 700 people on the boat when it left the coast of Libya, adding the nationalities involved were mainly Bangladeshis, Eritreans and Syrians.
Despite warm sea temperatures and a night-long search operation through to the early hours of Thursday morning, no further survivors have been found.
The IOM estimates that by August 6th of this year, over 192,000 migrants had arrived in Europe by sea with 98,369 of those arriving in Italy and 91,469 in Greece.