ROME: Forty-five people died, including some children, when a wooden sailing boat carrying migrants crashed against rocks on the southern Italian coast early on Sunday, authorities said.
The vessel had set sail from Turkey several days ago with migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and several other countries, and crashed in stormy weather near Steccato di Cutro, a seaside resort on the eastern coast of Calabria.
The provisional death toll stood at 45, Manuela Curra, a provincial government official, told Reuters. Eighty-one people survived, with 22 of them taken to hospital, she said.
One survivor was arrested on migrant trafficking charges, the Guardia di Finanza customs police said.
Cutro’s mayor, Antonio Ceraso, said women and children were among the dead. Exact numbers for how many children had died were not yet available.
His voice cracking up, Ceraso told the SkyTG24 news channel that he had seen “a spectacle that you would never want to see in your life … a gruesome sight … that stays with you for all your life”.
Wreckage from the wooden gulet, a Turkish sailing boat, was strewn across a large stretch of coast.
Curra said the vessel left Izmir in eastern Turkey three or four days ago, adding that survivors had said some 140 to 150 were on board.
The survivors were mostly from Afghanistan, as well as a few from Pakistan and a couple from Somalia, she said, adding that identifying the nationalities of the dead was harder.
“Many of these migrants came from Afghanistan and Iran, fleeing conditions of great hardship”, Italian President Sergio Mattarella said.
Initial reports from ANSA and other Italian news agencies, spoke of 27 bodies washed up on the beach and more found in the water.
Ignazio Mangione, an Italian Red Cross official, told SkyTG24 that very few of the children believed to have been on the boat survived.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expressed “deep sorrow” for the deaths. Blaming human traffickers, she vowed to block migrant sea departures to prevent such disasters.
Her right-wing administration has taken a hard line on migration since taking office in October, mostly by restricting the activities of migrant rescue charities with tough new laws that won final parliamentary approval on Thursday.
Meloni accuses charities of encouraging migrants to make the dangerous sea journey to Italy, acting as so-called “pull factors”.
Charities reject this, saying migrants set off regardless of whether rescue boats are in the vicinity.
“Stopping, blocking and hindering the work of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) will have only one effect: the death of vulnerable people left without help,” Spanish migrant rescue charity Open Arms tweeted in reaction to Sunday’s shipwreck.
In a separate statement, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said it was essential to stop sea crossings that he said offer migrants the “illusory mirage of a better life” in Europe, enrich traffickers, and cause such tragedies.
Pope Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina and long a vocal advocate for migrants’ rights, said he was praying for everyone caught up in the shipwreck.
Italy is one of the main landing points for migrants trying to enter Europe by sea, with many seeking to travel on to richer northern European nations. The so-called central Mediterranean route is known as one of the world’s most dangerous.
The United Nations Missing Migrants Project has registered more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014. More than 220 have died or disappeared this year, it estimates.