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Italy arrests Tunisian in migrant ship tragedy, plans state funeral

Italian authorities have arrested a 35-year-old Tunisian with a reported history of human smuggling in last week's deadly sinking of a boat packed with some 500 Africans migrants trying to reach Europe, according to media reports.

Khaled Ben Salem was identified by other survivors of the Thursday shipwreck as one of the men who brought the overloaded boat from the Libyan port of Misrata toward Italy, the reports said. The boat caught fire and sank just half a mile off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Ben Salem was transferred from the migrant reception center on the island to a prison in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, the BBC reported. He had been deported from Italy in April for having piloted another boatload of refugees to Italian shores, The Guardian newspaper said.

During a visit to the disaster scene Wednesday, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta announced that his nation was preparing a state funeral for the victims of the tragedy in which the confirmed death toll has risen to 302. Dozens more people are still missing and presumed dead.

Letta and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso were jeered during their brief visit Wednesday to Lampedusa, where residents inundated with boat people and some of the 155 who survived the disaster last week hurled shouts of "disgrace" and "killers" at the officials, euronews.com reported.

The European Union commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmstroem, who was also in the Lampedusa delegation, appealed Tuesday at a meeting of EU interior ministers for more concerted efforts to prevent tragedies like the one that has filled an airport hangar with coffins. She said she would propose a massive new search-and-rescue force "covering the whole Mediterranean, from Cyprus to Spain," to step up aid to migrant vessels that run into trouble during their crossings.

Although the plight of refugees from war-torn and unstable countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Libya and Syria has been raised by last week's tragedy, most of Europe's more prosperous countries have resisted previous attempts to reduce the instance of dangerous migrant journeys by opening their borders to greater numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers.

Barroso reiterated the EU's commitment to preventing such tragedies and said the commission would provide Italy the equivalent of $40 million to deal with the shelter and resettlement burdens imposed on the continent's closest landing point for those fleeing poverty, war and repression in Africa.

The commission chief also announced during his Lampedusa visit that migration issues would be high on the agenda of European leaders' Oct. 24-25 summit.

“The EU cannot accept that thousands of people die at its borders,” Barroso told reporters after touring Lampedusa's migrant holding center. “The challenges that Lampedusa and Italy are facing are European challenges.”

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Twitter: @cjwilliamslat

carol.williams@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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