6 migrants drown after boat runs aground near Sicily
Italian police officers stand next to the lifeless bodies of six migrants who, according to Italian coast guard officials, drowned after their boat ran aground on a sandbar and they tried to swim to shore, near Catania, southern Italy, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. The boat, with some 100 migrants aboard, became stranded early Saturday 15 meters off a beach popular with tourists and locals. (AP / Carmelo Imbesi)
Published Saturday, August 10, 2013 8:35AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, August 10, 2013 10:55AM EDT
ROME -- Six migrants drowned after their boat ran aground Saturday on a sandbar off a popular Sicilian holiday beach and they tried in vain to swim to shore, authorities said.
About 90 others on board survived after either after swimming 15 metres to shore unaided or after rescuers reached those who decided to stay in the boat.
"I saw a group of them trying to make it to the road from the beach" and called authorities, said Dario Monteforte, owner of a bathing establishment on the beach on the outskirts of Catania, eastern Sicily's largest city. Vacationers and residents, arriving at the beach shortly after dawn, were stunned to see the bodies of the dead, covered by plastic sheets and body bags, lined up on the beach.
It is rare for smugglers' often unseaworthy vessels filled with migrants to aim for shores near cities, and Coast Guard Capt. Roberto D'Arrico said the boat apparently made a navigational error while trying to reach secluded shores undetected.
These migrants came ashore on a stretch of Catania beach where both residents and vacationers rent lounge chairs and umbrellas to take in the sun for the day and swim in the Mediterranean. Cruise ships anchor offshore so those aboard can admire Sicily's eastern coast and see Mount Etna, an active volcano, rising up behind Catania.
Sounding shaken, Monteforte 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.
Authorities were trying to identify the survivors. Italian news reports said they included Egyptians and Syrians.
"The vessel ran aground on a sandbar," Catania chief prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said. "The migrants thought they could touch the sea bottom, they got out of the boat, and instead they drowned because suddenly the water became deep," the Italian news agency ANSA quoted him as saying.
Each year, thousands of people, many of them from sub-Saharan Africa, and hoping to find jobs or relatives in Europe, attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing in smugglers' boat, 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.
On Saturday, about 50 kilometres south of Catania, Italian rescuers brought to safety 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.
Unless the migrants can prove that they have jobs or families 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 centres, 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 off Libya or other northern African shores. During the trip, the pontiff decried what he called the indifference of the world to those who risk or lose their lives, attempting journeys to the shores of more affluent countries.