Updated Monday morning with survivor's comments
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is to hold urgent talks with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi today following the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean which left hundreds of migrants dead.
Reports indicated that a large fishing boat was carrying between 600 and 700 migrants when it capsized 120 miles south of Lampedusa on Saturday-Sunday night, but a Bangladeshi survivor reportedly told the Italian authorities there were 900 on board. He said some of them had been locked int the boat's hold by the people smugglers.
Eighteen units of the Italian Navy, merchant ships and two Maltese patrol boats are continuing their search for possible survivors.
Prime Minister Renzi told a press conference that 28 survivors and 24 dead people had been picked up.
The small numbers make more sense if hundreds of people were locked in the hold, because with so much weight down below, "surely the boat would have sunk," said General Antonino Iraso, of the Italian Border Police, which has deployed boats in the operation.
Prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said a survivor from Bangladesh described the situation on the fishing boat to prosecutors who interviewed him in a hospital. The man said about 300 people were in the hold when the fishing boat overturned, and that about 200 women and dozens of children also were on board.
Mr Salvi stressed that there was no confirmation yet of the man's account and that the investigation was ongoing.
Mr Iraso said the sea in the area is too deep for divers, suggesting that the final toll may never be known.
"How can it be that we daily are witnessing a tragedy?" asked Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, who met with his top ministers ahead of tomorrow's European Union meeting in Luxembourg, where foreign ministers have added the issue of migrants to their agenda.
Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela said an Italian vessel carrying the survivors and the corpses will be coming to Malta. It will arrive early this morning. The corpses will be carried ashore and the vessel will then take the survivors to Italy.
Dr Muscat is to meet Mr Renzi in Rome before an urgent EU foreign ministers' meeting which will be held in Luxembourg.
The meeting was requested by French President Francois Hollande, who discussed the situation with Mr Renzi on the phone. However since then both Italy and Malta have called for a summit meeting.
"If confirmed this would be the worst disaster of recent years in the Mediterranean," Hollande said on Canal+ television.
Rescue and disaster prevention efforts will need "more boats, more over flights and a much more intense battle against people-trafficking," Hollande said
The emergency was declared at about midnight when the migrants are believed to have moved to one side of the boat, capsizing it, when a merchant ship approached.
The survivors were picked up by a Portuguese merchant ship and scores of bodies were seen.
"They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water," Dr Muscat said when speaking at a PL activity this morning. A minute's silence was observed during the event.
The incident bears similarities to another case last week when some 400 migrants are believed to have perished.
Meanwhile, more migrant boats were intercepted today and the Italian coastguard issued new video footage of one such interception.
POPE CALLS FOR ACTION
Pope Francis appealed to the international community to take swift and decisive action to avoid more tragedies.
"They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war. They were looking for a better life," he told tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square for his Sunday noon address.
"Faced with such a tragedy, I express my most heartfelt pain and promise to remember the victims and their families in prayer," he said, departing from his prepared text.
"I make a heartfelt appeal to the international community to react decisively and quickly to see to it that such tragedies are not repeated," he said, before asking the crowd to pray "for these brothers and sisters".
'WE HAVE HAD TOO MANY 'NEVER AGAINS'
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also urged European governments to support action to protect migrants in the Mediterranean.
"We have said too many times 'never again'. Now is time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay," Mogherini said in a statement. "We need to save human lives all together, as all together we need to protect our borders and to fight the trafficking of human beings."
PRESIDENT IN STRONG APPEAL
President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said Malta could no longer look at migration as a “bogeyman” to be feared.
In an impassioned speech at the Vilhena Band Club in Floriana to mark the feast of St Publius, she called for society to welcome and show love to those who appeared as outsiders.
“We cannot have peace while people act in a hostile manner at others just because they see them with dark skin or wearing a headscarf,” she said.
“There are no easy solutions to migration. It’s no longer just about war. In today’s world people are on the move, just like our own children are going abroad to better themselves. If it were us – if we had to leave home for a chance at life with human dignity – wouldn't we take that chance?”
PM - MALTA WILL DO EVERYTHING TO HELP
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat referred to the tragedy this morning when he spoke at a PL meeting in Marsa.
He said he was informed at 1am that the AFM had been requested to help the Italian forces after the incident took place 'in Libyan waters'.
He said a Maltese patrol boat was helping in the rescue efforts along with Italian naval ships and cargo vessels.
"They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water."
If confirmed, he said, this would be the biggest tragedy to have ever taken place in the Mediterranean.
The enormity of what was taking place was far more important than other matters, he said.
Malta had problems over migration, he said, but no one should be allowed to die.
He said that despite the talk, Malta and Italy were still alone in this crisis. True, Europe appeared to be showing more understanding, but the bottom line was that this was political talk. What he got on his phone was pleas for help as people fought for their lives.
Malta, he said, should not shirk its responsibilities simply because the migrants were not being brought here.
"A tragedy is unfolding in the Mediterranean and if the EU and the world continue to close their eyes, they will be judged in the harshest terms as it was judged in the past when it closed its eyes to genocides when the comfortable did nothing," Dr Muscat said.
Malta, he said, would do everything possible to save as many lives as it could. He asked all present to observe a minute's silence.
NEED FOR URGENT EU MEETING
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, speaking in Siggiewi also expressed his concern and urged the government to offer whatever the country could do to help people's lives. He also called on the government to seek an urgent EU meeting to address this issue and said the Opposition would back government efforts in this regard.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna used the opportunity of the Feast of St Publius this morning to call for greater respect and tolerance towards irregular migrants.
Celebrating Mass at the Floriana Parish Church, Archbishop Scicluna said the feast day should remind the faithful of the plight of “our brothers ‘shipwrecked’ on the Mediterranean today”.
“We cannot celebrate this feast here today and then turn round and use words of hate towards migrants on social media,” he said.
“Publius took Paul into his home, not knowing who he was. He didn’t ‘send him back’, and he received a great blessing for himself and his country as a result.”
A MAN-MADE TRAGEDY OF APPALLING PROPORTIONS
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia said: "What we are witnessing in the Mediterranean is a man-made tragedy of appalling proportions. These latest deaths at sea come as a shock, but not a surprise.
“Whilst merchant vessels and their crews have bravely attempted to fill the gap left by the chronic shortfall in specialist search and rescue teams, they are not designed, equipped or trained for maritime rescue. It is time for European governments to face their responsibilities and urgently set up a multi-country concerted humanitarian operation to save lives at sea.”