The Tunisian captain of a boat that capsized off Libya on Sunday, killing hundreds of migrants, has been charged with reckless multiple homicide, Italian officials say.
He has also been charged along with a Syrian member of the crew with favouring illegal immigration.
The two were among 27 survivors who arrived in Sicily late on Monday.
The authorities say the disaster was caused by mistakes made by the captain and the ship being overcrowded.
Prosecutors in the Sicilian port of Catania said the boat had collided with a Portuguese container ship just before it capsized, but absolved the merchant vessel’s crew of any responsibility.
They said the boat had keeled over after the collision which had been caused by steering mistakes by the captain and the panicked movements of the migrants on the 20-metre (66ft) former fishing trawler.
Carlotta Sami of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy was in Catania to meet the survivors. Some 800 people are thought to have died in the disaster, she said.
There were nationals of Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Sierra Leone and Senegal on board, kept in three different layers in the boat.
“They left on Saturday morning around eight o’clock in the morning from Tripoli, and they started to have problems, and they were approached by merchant vessels during the night around 10 o’clock.
At some point, “the little boat lost its balance, and people started to move around. Those that were down wanted to come up and vice-versa, and many people fell into the water, and then the boat capsized,” she said.
The two men were arrested while still on board the Italian coastguard ship, officials said
The two men charged in connection with the disaster have been named as ship commander Mohammed Ali Malek, 27, a Tunisian, and crew member Mahmud Bikhit, 25, a Syrian.
The charges come after the European Union set out a package of measures to try to ease the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
Search-and-rescue operations will be stepped up, and there will be a campaign to destroy traffickers’ boats.
A homicide investigation has been opened into the disaster.
Separately, two of those rescued from a vessel carrying dozens of migrants that ran aground off the Greek island of Rhodes on Monday will be taken to the prosecutor’s office.
It is thought the two men, both Syrians, were in charge of the boat; they will face charges linked to illegally transporting 90 people to Greece, and responsibility for the deaths of three passengers.
The survivors stood still on the rescue boat. They looked exhausted. One shook hands with the mayor of Catania and put his hand to his chest in a gesture of thanks.
Francesco Rocca runs the Italian Red Cross: “They are under shock, completely shocked. They repeat their phrases about the fact that they are the only survivors on the tragedy.
“Some of them want to speak, some of them want to stay silent. You can imagine they are under a lot of pressure. It’s the first time I see such a high level of shock. It’s clear from their eyes.”
Two survivors told rescue workers that they had managed to stay afloat by clinging to the bodies of their fellow passengers. Others said that the children on board drowned because they were trapped on the boat’s lower two levels.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the 10-point package set out at talks in Luxembourg was a “strong reaction from the EU to the tragedies” and “shows a new sense of urgency and political will”.
“We are developing a truly European sense of solidarity in fighting human trafficking – finally so.”
The measures include an increase in the financial resources of Frontex, which runs the EU’s Mediterranean rescue service Triton, and an extension of Triton’s operational area.
Italian Red Cross chief Francesco Rocca said he hoped the international community would be able to find concrete solutions in the countries where migrants flee from.
“Most of them don’t want to escape, they are forced to escape, they are escaping war, they are escaping [intense] hunger, so this is something that we cannot avoid.
“If we block one route, they will find another route, so this is something we have to face… not with only words or actions that don’t match the concrete needs of the people.”
Meanwhile, reports have emerged that the captain of the boat that capsized off the coast of Libya over the weekend had slammed the vessel into a Portuguese merchant ship that had come to its rescue, according to prosecutors in Sicily, Tuesday, leading to what a United Nations relief agency said was the deadliest episode ever recorded in the Mediterranean.
Prosecutors in the Sicilian port city of Catania said in a statement that the captain’s actions were exacerbated when the migrants on the crowded vessel shifted to one side of the boat after the collision, causing it to capsize.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement on Tuesday that the ship was carrying 850 people, and that only 28 were known to have survived.
“From available information and the various accounts we’ve had, U.N.H.C.R. now believes the number of fatalities to have been over 800,” said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the agency.
The boat’s captain, Mohammed Ali Malek, left, and Mahmud Bikhit, a crew member, are likely to be charged with engaging in illegal migration. Credit Italian Police
The two men were detained while on the rescue boat that brought more than two dozen survivors to Catania on Monday night. The United Nations refugee agency said 350 Eritreans were onboard, along with people from Ethiopia, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Syria.
A Bangladeshi survivor told the authorities that many of the victims of the shipwreck had been locked by smugglers in a hold on the lower deck. The survivors arrived in Catania on Monday night, and the agency said they were taken by bus to a center where they would get medical treatment.
The episode has highlighted a growing humanitarian crisis, and the European Council president, Donald Tusk, has called for a European summit meeting to be held on Thursday to address the issue. Rising numbers of refugees have been trying to reach Europe as the weather improves, often travelling in rickety boats operated by ruthless smugglers. Many never make it.
Prosecutors in Italy are investigating what caused the sinking, including whether the vessel capsized after the migrants rushed to one side of the ship.