Mediterranean Shipwreck Crew Not to Face Kidnapping Charge
Two smugglers arrested over the deaths of hundreds drowned in the Mediterranean's most deadly shipwreck in decades will not be charged with kidnapping because assertions that migrants had been locked below deck had proved wrong, an Italian prosecutor said on Tuesday.
The two face homicide charges over the sinking of a 20-metre fishing boat last month that killed some 800 migrants. The incident also raised international alarm about attempts by thousands to flee across the Mediterranean from Libya in often ramshackle boats.
Italy will undertake the expensive and difficult operation of pulling up the vessel from the sea bed where it lies at a depth of around 375 metres (1,235 feet), 135 km (85 miles) north of Libya, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Tuesday.
"I want the whole world to see what happened," he told state broadcaster RAI in a television interview.
In initial testimony, one survivor told prosecutors the doors to the lower deck had been blocked; but Italian prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said further testimony and underwater video of the shipwreck showed that was not true.
"Many people were below deck, but they weren't locked in," Salvi told reporters at the courthouse in Catania, Italy.
Charges of kidnapping would therefore no longer be pressed against the captain, a Tunisian, and the Syrian crew member.
The Catania court on Monday confirmed the arrest of the two smugglers, who survivors said had been in charge of navigation, on charges of multiple homicide and people smuggling.
Prosecutors accuse the men of mishandling the boat and causing it to collide with a Portuguese merchant ship - the "King Jacob" - which was coming to its assistance.
As the passengers rushed away from the side of the boat that struck the merchant ship, the grossly overloaded vessel capsized and sank within minutes. Salvi said the King Jacob had been "cleared of any responsibility" for the disaster.
Video shot by an Italian navy submersible showed that many bodies remain inside the vessel, sources have told Reuters.
Pulling up the boat will not be easy. Italy recovered the bodies of hundreds of migrants who drowned in October 2013 off the island of Lampedusa, but that was a much simpler operation because the shipwreck was in 30 metres of water and only 2 km from the coast.
Of the 24 bodies that have been recovered, only two have been identified, and the court has the probable names of two others. Twenty eight people, including the two alleged smugglers, survived.
(Reporting by Sasa Kavic, writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Susan Fenton)