Baby among 62 found dead after migrant boat gets into trouble off Italian coast

Children and a baby are among at least 62 people who were killed, as a migrant boat was smashed to pieces by stormy seas. Martha Fairlie reports.

As many as 100 people are feared dead after a a migrant boat broke apart in rough seas off the southern coast of Italy’s mainland.

Among those who died in the incident was a few-months-old baby, Italian news agency AGI has said.

Italy's Fire and Rescue service confirmed 62 victims have been recovered with divers and rescue teams still searching for survivors.

With an estimated 170 people on board and many still missing, it is feared the final death toll could be far higher.

The vessel ran into trouble at dawn in the Ionian Sea, according to port authorities near the coastal town of Crotone, in Calabria, the toe of the Italian peninsula.

The wreckage from a capsized boat washes ashore at a beach near Cutro, southern Italy. Credit: AP

Wooden pieces of wreckage littered the beach at Steccato di Cutro, near the point where the boat apparently broke apart after crashing against some rocks.

Italian firefighter officer Giuseppe Larosa told ITV News: "It was a spine-chilling scene - bodies disseminated all along the beach... among them many children."

At least 80 people were found alive, including some who reached the shore after the shipwreck.

“All of the survivors are adults,″ Red Cross volunteer Ignazio Mangione said. ”Unfortunately, all the children are among the missing or were found dead on the beach.”

Rescuers said two men who survived were spotted trying to save children by holding them over their heads as waves buffeted them. But the children died, state TV said.

“Many of them didn’t know how to swim and they saw people disappear in the waves; they saw them die,” said Giovanna Di Benedetto of Doctors Without Borders.

Debris washed ashore as rescuers search for survivors. Credit: AP

The humanitarian group, which sent psychologists to help survivors process the disaster, said the they spoke to a 16-year-old Afghan boy whose sister, 28, made it to the beach but then died.

The group said the teen “hasn't found the courage to tell his parents.” Another survivor was a 12-year-old boy from Afghanistan who lost his entire family, including four siblings. Italian state TV quoted survivors as saying the boat set out five days ago from Turkey. Many of those on board were women fleeing from the Taliban, only to die in European waters.

Pope Francis told the faithful in St. Peter's Square that he was praying for the dead, the missing and the survivors, as well as for rescuers "and for those who give welcome” to the migrants. “It’s an enormous tragedy,” Crotone Mayor Vincenzo Voce told RAI state TV.“In solidarity, the city will find places in the cemetery” for the dead, Voce said.

Details about the nationalities of the migrants were not immediately provided in the reports.

A UN statement later confirmed, among those aboard, there were “children and entire families,″ with most of the passengers coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.

The boat is understood to have collided with reefs in rough seas.

Some of the wreckage ended up on a stretch of beach along Calabria’s Ionian Sea coast, where splintered pieces of bright blue wood littered the sand like matchsticks.

“All of the survivors are adults,″ said Red Cross volunteer Ignazio Mangione. ”Unfortunately, all the children are among the missing or were found dead on the beach.”

A months-old baby and a boy aged eight were reported among the dead.

Reporting from the village of Steccato di Cutro, state TV quoted survivors as saying the boat had set out three days earlier from Turkey.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni said the migrants had been crowded into a 20-metre (66-foot) -long boat.

Italian authorities said a rescue operation involving a helicopter and police aircraft, and vessels from state firefighter squads, the coast guard and border police, was underway Sunday. Local fishermen also joined in the search for survivors.

A pair of firefighter water rescuers struggled with wind gusts and waves several meters (yards) high crashing onto the beach as they brought a body ashore.

Meloni expressed “her deep sorrow for the many human lives torn away by human traffickers.” “It’s inhumane to exchange the lives of men, women and children for the ‘price’ of a ticket paid by them in the false prospect for a safe voyage,” saids Meloni, a far-right leader whose governing allies include the anti-migrant League party. She vowed to crack down on departures arranged by human smugglers and to press fellow European Union leaders to help.

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Opposition parties pointed to Sunday’s tragedy as proof of the flaws in Italy’s migration policy. “Condemning only the smugglers, as the centre-right is doing now, is hypocrisy,″ said Laura Ferrara, a European Parliament lawmaker from the populist 5-Star Movement. “The truth is that the EU today doesn’t offer effective alternatives for those who are forced to abandon their country of origin,″ Ms Ferrara said in a statement. Another route employed by traffickers crosses the central Mediterranean Sea from Libya's coast, where migrants often endure brutal detention conditions for months before they are allowed to board rubber dinghies or aging wooden fishing boats for Italian shores. That route is considered one of the deadliest. Ms Meloni's government has concentrated on complicating efforts by humanitarian boats to make multiple rescues in the central Mediterranean by assigning them ports of disembarkation along Italy's northern coasts. That means the vessels need more time to return to the sea after bringing migrants aboard and taking them safely to shore. Humanitarian organisations have lamented that the crackdown also includes an order to the charity boats not to remain at sea after the first rescue operation in hopes of performing other rescues, but to head immediately to their assigned port. Violators face stiff fines and confiscation of rescue vessels. Italian President Sergio Mattarella called on the European Union to "finally concretely assume the responsibility of managing the migratory phenomenon to remove it from the traffickers of human beings''. Italy has complained bitterly for years that fellow EU countries have balked at taking in some of the migrants, many of whom are aiming to find family or work in northern Europe.