ROME — Survivors of a migrant boat that capsized off Libya as rescuers approached told investigators that smugglers armed with knives forced people to stay in the trawler’s hold, increasing fears that more than 200 had been trapped inside and drowned, officials in Sicily said Friday.
Police said the five suspected smugglers — Libyan and Algerian men — were detained Thursday in Palermo as they disembarked, along with 362 survivors, from an Irish naval vessel. Six other survivors were taken by helicopter to hospitals, and 26 bodies have been recovered.
The suspects were arrested for investigation of multiple counts of manslaughter and aiding illegal immigration, and of belonging to a criminal organization based in Libya, from where the overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels set sail.
“According to some of the witness accounts, these criminals allegedly each had a precise role,” the police statement said. “One of these, along with two others, commanded the boat; the others were tasked with controlling the migrants, impeding them from moving, even by using violence.”
The five “allegedly caused the ascertained deaths of 26 people and the presumed deaths of about 200, who, according to what witnesses say, were closed inside the boat which overturned,” the police said.
The International Organization for Migration said survivors told its staff that up to 250 people had been forced to sit in the hold — “the most dangerous part of the ship.”
“Those who could not get out in time would have drowned almost immediately,” the organization said.
When water started flooding the hold and people tried to get on deck, smugglers “armed with knives blocked their escape,” the IOM said.
When the trawler developed problems, “the smugglers called their people in Libya to ask if they could come back but were told to continue to Italy,” the organization said, citing one survivor’s account.
Some migrants who fell into the water had life vests; others, struggling to swim, were tossed life vests by rescuers. Italian military helicopters lowered inflatable rafts.
Migrants paid $1,200 to $1,800 each for passage. Safer places on board cost more; life vests were sold separately for $25-$50, police said.
The passengers included Palestinians, Syrians, Eritreans, sub-Saharan Africans and some 150 migrants from Bangladesh, authorities said.
The capsizing would be the second deadliest tragedy off Libya this year. In April, a fishing boat which reportedly had about 800 aboard overturned and sank as rescuers approached. Only 28 survivors were found.
Most of the rescued migrants hope to win asylum in northern Europe, where they have relatives. Some anti-immigration politicians in Europe contend the rescue operations only encourage more migrants to tempt their fate at sea.
Pope Francis on Friday said refusing to help migrants at sea is tantamount to killing them.
Nearly 100,000 migrants have reached Italy by sea this year, and 90,000 reached Greece by sea, the IOM said.