PALERMO, ITALY - A Sicilian fishing boat with seven people on board was seized overnight in an apparent act of piracy 40 miles from the coast of Libya, a trade association said on Friday.
Libyan government launches have stopped such boats in the past, sometimes as they investigated disputes over fishing territories. But there have been no reports of pirate attacks.
The stretch of sea has grown increasingly chaotic in recent years as hundreds of thousands of people have risked the dangerous journey to Europe to escape conflicts in Libya, other parts of north Africa and the Middle East.
The Italian foreign ministry said its crisis team was investigating the alleged seizure of the motorized trawler from Trapani in southwestern Sicily which was carrying three Italians and four Tunisians.
A spokesman for a Sicilian fishing trade association said other boats in the area had raised the alarm via radio saying what appeared to be a tugboat had seized the Italian vessel.
“This is probably an act of piracy because the tugboat that approached the trawler had no Libyan governmental insignia,” Francesco Mezzapelle told Reuters.
Around 13,000 people have been rescued at sea over the past two weeks as the spring weather has improved sailing conditions. About 1,000 people have been reported to have drowned this year alone and survivors have reported harrowing conditions.
On Friday, a rubber boat carrying 60-70 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa was picked up by an Italian vessel and taken to the island of Lampedusa, with most of those on board suffering heavy burns after an gas explosion that took place even before they had begun their voyage.
Survivors included children and one 25 year-old woman died on the boat, officials said.
“They told us that they were in one of the places where traffickers hold migrants and refugees before placing them on boats and a gas cylinder exploded and killed several people and injured many others,” said Barbara Molinario, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“The traffickers would not allow them to leave and reach the hospital so they didn't get treatment for a few days and then they were put on a boat,” she said.
On Thursday, Italian police arrested 15 Muslims on suspicion of murder after survivors from a packed migrant boat reported they had thrown 12 Christians into the sea after a dispute which broke out after people on board began praying for their lives.