The Italian coast guard has found 25 bodies on a refugee boat fleeing Libya. All the other immigrants on board the overcrowded vessel were brought to safety. Authorities are now investigating.
The overcrowded vessel had left Libya three days ago, with nearly 300 people on board - most of them identified as coming from sub-Saharan Africa. Italian coast guard officials received a call for assistance when the boat was 56 kilometers south of the tiny island, Lampedusa.
Two coast guard boats reached the refugee boat and escorted it within two kilometers from the island where its engine gave way. Officials decided to transfer the refugees onto coast guard boats and take them to the island.
When authorities checked the vessel after transferring the refugees, they discovered the dead people in the engine room. The room was accessible only through a small trap door.
The commander of the port of Lampedusa, Antonio Morana, confirmed there were 25 bodies. He says it is still unclear what caused their deaths. He says there were 296 sub-Saharan Africans on board when the boat left Libya, three days ago.
An inquiry has now been opened into the causes of death. Authorities say the victims are believed to have choked to death. A local prosecutor said an autopsy would be carried out to find the precise cause of death, although initial checks show that it was apparently caused by asphyxiation.
Thousands of refugees fleeing Libya, mostly migrant workers from other parts of Africa, continue to arrive on Lampedusa. The island, Italy’s southern most point, is closer to Africa than to mainland Italy. It is the biggest gateway for illegal immigration into the European Union.