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Children’s coffins mark tragedy of Italy refugee shipwreck

The coffins of 64 victims of a devastating refugee shipwreck off Italy’s southern coast have been laid out in a local sports hall, five of them small and white, containing the bodies of the youngest children who died making the “voyage of death”.

Flower bouquets adorned each coffin on Tuesday in the building in Crotone, while a blue toy car had been laid on the smallest, ready for mourners to pay their respects.

Earlier, the coffins had been opened to allow the identification of the dead, with relatives having flown in from countries including Germany and Austria.

One woman let out a scream which shattered the silence of the sports hall.

A German-speaking man told reporters he was the nephew of an Afghan man who survived but lost his wife and three children aged 5, 8 and 12, after paying $30,000 for the family to cross. A 14-year-old child survived.

Fourteen children were among the 64 people confirmed to have died when their overcrowded boat shattered in a storm on Sunday morning, the Interior Ministry said.

Another 80 survived, while several more are believed still to be missing.

It was one of the most tragic incidents in the Central Mediterranean, which tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers cross each year hoping to find a new life in Europe.

“I am looking for my aunt and her three children,” said Aladdin Mohibzada, adding that he drove 25 hours from Germany to reach the makeshift morgue set up at a sports stadium. He said he had ascertained that his aunt and two of the children died, but that a five-year-old survived and was being sheltered in a center for minors.

“We are looking into possibilities to send (the bodies) to Afghanistan, the bodies that are here,” he told The Associated Press news agency outside the morgue. But he complained about a lack of information as authorities scrambled to cope with the disaster. “We are helpless here. We don’t know what we should do.”

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Afghans, Pakistanis on board

Bodies, shoes and debris have been washing up along the shoreline for the past three days, with the most recent body found on the beach at Steccato on Tuesday morning, the fire service said.

Divers are still searching for potentially up to 20 missing people, although it is not yet clear how many were on the boat.

Up to 200 people had been on board, from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, also Somalia and Syria, according to charities working with survivors.

The overcrowded wooden boat was called Summer Love and it set off last Thursday, survivors told Red Cross charity workers.

Many of those on board were seated below deck and had difficulty breathing, they reportedly said.

Survivors said they paid smugglers between $5,300 to $8,500, according to the Corriere della Sera daily.

The Afghan Foreign Ministry expressed its “great sadness” for 80 Afghan citizens, including children, who it said died in the shipwreck.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan prays for forgiveness for the martyrs and patience for the families and relatives of the victims, urging all citizens once again to avoid going to foreign countries through irregular migration,” it said.

Few metres from the coast

Amid questions about whether more could have been done to prevent the tragedy, both Italy’s coastguard and the EU border agency Frontex revealed they had tried to help.

Frontex said one of its planes had spotted a “heavily overcrowded boat” heading towards Italy late on Saturday, and had informed the Italian authorities.

“There were no signs of distress,” it said, adding that the plane monitored the ship until it had to go home to refuel.

It said Italy dispatched two patrol boats to intercept the vessel but they were forced by bad weather to return to port.

Italy’s coastguard, for its part, said Frontex had seen the boat “with only one person visible”, and a financial crimes police vessel had tried to intercept it.

At 4:30 am on Sunday (0330 GMT), reports had come in suggesting the boat was in danger just “a few minutes from the coast”, and a rescue mission was launched.

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