A fishing boat containing the bodies of about 30 people is being towed by an Italian navy frigate to the Sicilian port of Pozzallo in the latest tragedy to hit the busy crossing route across the Mediterranean sea.
The Italian navy said the discovery was made in the bow during a rescue mission on Sunday afternoon as part of the country’s Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) operation, which aims to intercept migrant vessels before they run into trouble.
The likely cause of death was asphyxiation and drowning, according to medical staff at the scene who also advised against the bodies “being removed due to restricted space”, said a navy statement.
There were no more details immediately available concerning the circumstances of the fatalities.
Once the navy had finished transferring the 566 survivors on to the Grecale, the frigate began towing the boat to Pozzallo, a small port on the south-east coast of Sicily, where it is expected to arrive on Tuesday.
Although the Italian government would like to see other EU countries help shoulder the burden of its €9m-a-month costs, Rome is committed to the Mare Nostrum operation, which it and non-governmental organisations say has saved countless lives.
But, as the discovery on Sunday shows, the mission has not managed to prevent deaths. In May, 36 people died and 42 were missing after their boat ran into trouble off the coast of Libya, while at least 17 more died when their vessel sank south of the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The tragedies have prompted rightwing political critics of Mare Nostrum to demand an end to thew operation, arguing that it has simply encouraged more people to make the perilous crossing.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the xenophobic Northern League, accused the prime minister, Matteo Renzi, of having blood on his hands following the latest tragedy. “Another 30 dead on a boat. Another 30 dead on the consciences of those who defend Mare Lorum [Their Sea]. Stop the departures, help them in their own countries, immediately,” he wrote on Facebook.