Survivors of a shipwreck off southern Italy have wept over their dead, as relatives of some of the 67 people who drowned arrived from other countries to claim their loved ones.
The latest body to be found on Wednesday was that of a five-year-old boy, one of more than a dozen children who lost their lives on Sunday morning.
Weeping women were led among the rows of coffins laid out in a sports hall in the southern Italian seaside town of Crotone, some kneeling to pray quietly, while others howled in grief.
After a group prayer, men and women hugged and caressed the flower-adorned coffins, one man sobbing as he touched a stuffed Tigger toy, while others fainted and were carried out by Red Cross workers.
Outside, relatives who had come over from countries including Germany and Austria, described final messages exchanged with loved ones who had set off on the overcrowded boat last week.
Afghan Mohamed Djafari, who lives in Germany, said his 40-year-old cousin called him just before 4 am [local time] on Sunday.
“She said, ‘We’re about to arrive, we see the beach, we see lights’,” he told the AFP news agency.
She then called again “and said, ‘Please Mohamed, come help me, I have no idea what to do’,” he said.
The boat, which was believed to have been carrying about 180 people, mostly from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, broke up just off the shore in violent weather, after possibly hitting a sandbank.
Children’s coffins mark tragedy of Italy refugee shipwreck
‘Hoped they were alive’
Djafari’s cousin survived, along with her 10-year-old son, and the pair are in hospital together.
Her 17-year-old daughter died, while her seven-year-old daughter is still missing, he said.
“I drove 22 hours by car in the hope that the children were still alive,” Djafari said.
The Interior Ministry said on Tuesday that 14 children were among the dead.
Around 80 people 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 refugees and asylum seekers cross each year hoping to find a new life in Europe.
Screams, snatching children
Locals had joined in the rescue effort early on Sunday morning, among them fisherman Vincenzo Luciano, who headed to the dark beach after being called by a friend to come and help.
“When I turned on the light of the telephone they were dead on the ground, there were children, above all children,” the 50-year-old told AFP.
He and others were pulling them out of the water, while desperate survivors of the shipwreck tried to find their relatives.
“There were screams, mothers who were snatching children out of our hands thinking they were their children,” he said.
Opposition leaders called on Wednesday for Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi to resign, amid fury over comments blaming the victims for setting sail, and questions about whether more could have be done to prevent the tragedy.
EU border agency Frontex spotted the overcrowded boat late on Saturday, flagging it up to Italian authorities, but saying there were “no signs of distress”.
Italy’s financial police dispatched two patrol boats to intercept the vessel amid suspicions of people trafficking, but were forced by bad weather to return to port.
Italy’s coastguard, which has patrol boats capable of sailing in storms, said it had been told about the boat, but had no idea it was in danger until the boat sank.
Critics have questioned why a rescue operation was not launched once authorities knew there were vulnerable people in an overcrowded vessel at the mercy of a storm.
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