Prosecutors: Capsized boat captain and crew member arrested

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Hundreds Feared Dead After Migrant Boat Sinks Off Libya

CATANIA, Sicily (AP) - European leaders struggled for an adequate response in the face of unremitting migrant flows and continued instability in Libya following the feared drowning of as many as 900 people in the latest Mediterranean tragedy. In Sicily early Tuesday, prosecutors said they had arrested the boat's captain and a crew member.

Assistant Prosecutor Rocco Liguori said two men were charged with favoring illegal immigration and that the Tunisian captain was also charged with reckless multiple homicide in relation to the sinking.

The captain and crew member, a Syrian, were arrested aboard the rescue boat that brought 27 survivors from the shipwreck to Sicily.

Even as the search continued for victims of the weekend disaster, coast guard ships rushed to respond to new distress calls on the high seas - two off Libya and a third boat that ran aground near Greece.

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Prosecutors: Capsized boat captain and crew member arrested
Rescued migrants off the Libyan coast arrive at the harbor in Catania, Italy on April 20, 2015. More than 700 people are feared dead following the capsize off Libya of a fishing boat that had been crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe. (Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI via APF/Getty Images)
A migrant disembarks from the Italian Coast Guard ship Gregretti which is believed to be carrying 27 survivors of the migrant shipwreck in the mediterranean, at Catania port on April 20, 2015 in Catania, Italy. The weekend saw the worst disaster of its kind as hundreds of migrants are believed to have perished as they attempted to cross the mediterranean from Libya to Italy in order to seek refuge. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
Women leave flowers in memory of victims near the Italian Coast Guard ship Gregretti which is believed to be carrying 27 survivors of the migrant shipwreck in the mediterranean, at Catania port on April 20, 2015 in Catania, Italy. The weekend saw the worst disaster of its kind as hundreds of migrants are believed to have perished as they attempted to cross the mediterranean from Libya to Italy in order to seek refuge. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
Italian Minister Graziano Delrio stands on the deck of Italian Coast Guard ship Gregretti which is believed to be carrying 27 survivors of the migrant shipwreck in the mediterranean, at Catania port on April 20, 2015 in Catania, Italy. The weekend saw the worst disaster of its kind as hundreds of migrants are believed to have perished as they attempted to cross the mediterranean from Libya to Italy in order to seek refuge. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
A migrant is pictured at the Palazzolo Acreide immigration center, on April 17, 2015 in Sicily. The U.N. refugee agency said over 35,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea (including 23,500 who landed in Italy and over 12,000 in Greece) in 2015. At the same time, some 950 people have been reported dead or missing at sea. Last year some 219,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean (Italy alone received over 170,000). Most of them were rescued by the Italian Navy, the Coast Guard or merchant vessels. It is estimated that some 3,500 people lost their lives at sea last year. AFP PHOTO / GIOVANNI ISOLINO (Photo credit should read GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
Local residents and rescue workers help a migrant woman after a boat carrying migrants sank off the island of Rhodes, southeastern Greece, on April 20, 2015. At least three people, including a child, died when a boat carrying more than 80 migrants sank off the Greek island of Rhodes today, police said.(Photo credit: ARGIRIS MANTIKOS/AFP/Getty Images)
An Italian Naval officer saltes as the body of a person who died after a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, is brought ashore along with 23 others retreived by the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta on April 20, 2015. More than 700 people are feared dead following the capsize off Libya of a fishing boat that had been crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe. (Photo credit: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images)
Survivors of an accident in which a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, sit on the deck of the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta on April 20, 2015. More than 700 people are feared dead following the capsize off Libya of a fishing boat that had been crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe.(Photo credit: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images)
An Italian naval officer salutes as the body of person who died after fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, is brought ashore along with 23 others retreived by the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta on April 20, 2015. More than 700 people are feared dead following the capsize off Libya of a fishing boat that had been crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe. (Photo credit: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images)
Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti sits in the dock at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta on April 20, 2015, after bringing survivors and the bodies of victims of a boat capsize. More than 700 people are feared dead following the capsize off Libya of a fishing boat that had been crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe.  (Photo credit: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images)
Survivors from the shipwreck of a boat arrive on April 15, 2015 aboard the tanker Maria Bottiglieri in the port of Corigliano Calabro. Italian coastguards intercepted 42 boats on April 12 and 13, carrying 6,500 migrants attempting to make the hazardous crossing to Europe. AFP PHOTO / ALFONSO DI VINCENZO (Photo credit should read ALFONSO DI VINCENZO/AFP/Getty Images)
Shipwrecked migrants sit on the deck of a rescue vessel as they arrive in the Italian port of Augusta in Sicily on April 16, 2015. As many as 41 migrants drowned after a small boat carrying refugees sank in the Mediterranean, Italian media said, days after 400 were lost in another shipwreck. Four survivors told Italian police and humanitarian organisations that their inflatable vessel sank not long after leaving the coast of Libya for Europe with 45 people on board. AFP PHOTO / GIOVANNI ISOLINO (Photo credit should read GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
Italian Red Cross personnel prepare to give first aid to shipwrecked migrants as they arrive in the Italian port of Augusta in Sicily on April 16, 2015. As many as 41 migrants drowned after a small boat carrying refugees sank in the Mediterranean, Italian media said, days after 400 were lost in another shipwreck. Four survivors told Italian police and humanitarian organisations that their inflatable vessel sank not long after leaving the coast of Libya for Europe with 45 people on board. AFP PHOTO / GIOVANNI ISOLINO (Photo credit should read GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
TV crews wait at the Catania's habour, in Sicily, for the arrival of the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti on April 20, 2015 as more than 700 people are feared dead after a fishing boat crammed with migrants seeking a better life in Europe capsized off Libya, with some survivors suggesting nearly 1,000 could have been on board. Italian and Maltese navy boats meanwhile continued a desperate search for the victims of Sunday's disaster, as an Italian vessel brought the first group of survivors and 24 bodies to Malta. AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Medics take care of migrants disembarking from a boat in the port of Messina after a rescue operation at see on April 18, 2015 in Sicily. A surge of migrants pouring into Europe from across the Mediterranean won't end before chaos in Libya is controlled, Italy's prime minister said yesterday, as the Vatican condemned a deadly clash between Muslim and Christian refugees on one boat. Italian authorities have rescued more than 11,000 migrants making the often deadly voyage from North Africa in the past six days, with hundreds more expected, the coastguard said.(Photo credit: GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
A boat transporting migrants arrives in the port of Messina after a rescue operation at see on April 18, 2015 in Sicily. A surge of migrants pouring into Europe from across the Mediterranean won't end before chaos in Libya is controlled, Italy's prime minister said yesterday, as the Vatican condemned a deadly clash between Muslim and Christian refugees on one boat. Italian authorities have rescued more than 11,000 migrants making the often deadly voyage from North Africa in the past six days, with hundreds more expected, the coastguard said. (Photo credit:  GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - APRIL 20: People stage a demonstration for the migrants who drowned of around 700 migrants off the Libyan coast on Sunday, in Brussels, Belgium on April 20, 2015. Around 700 migrants are dead after a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean sea, in the the Strait of Sicily, between Italy and Libya, an Italian coast guard official has said on Sunday. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - APRIL 20: People stage a demonstration for the migrants who drowned of around 700 migrants off the Libyan coast on Sunday, in Brussels, Belgium on April 20, 2015. Around 700 migrants are dead after a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean sea, in the the Strait of Sicily, between Italy and Libya, an Italian coast guard official has said on Sunday. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
CATANIA, ITALY - APRIL 20: A banner reading 'No more shipwreck, European Right of Asylum to avoid further deaths' is shown at the Catania port prior an Italian Coast Guard ship that will arrive in the evening in the Port of Catania carrying 27 migrant survivors of a shipwricking between Sicily and north of Africa on April 20, 2015 in Catania, Italy. The weekend saw the worst disaster of its kind as hundreds of migrants are believed to have perished as they attempted to cross the mediterranean from Libya to Italy in order to seek refuge. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - APRIL 20: People stage a demonstration for the migrants who drowned of around 700 migrants off the Libyan coast on Sunday, in Brussels, Belgium on April 20, 2015. Around 700 migrants are dead after a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean sea, in the the Strait of Sicily, between Italy and Libya, an Italian coast guard official has said on Sunday. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - APRIL 20: People stage a demonstration for the migrants who drowned of around 700 migrants off the Libyan coast on Sunday, in Brussels, Belgium on April 20, 2015. Around 700 migrants are dead after a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean sea, in the the Strait of Sicily, between Italy and Libya, an Italian coast guard official has said on Sunday. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Decrying what he called an "escalation in these death voyages," Italian Premier Matteo Renzi urged Europe to put the focus on preventing more boats from leaving Libya, the source of 90 percent of migrant traffic to Italy.

"We are facing an organized criminal activity that is making lots of money, but above all ruining many lives," Renzi said at a joint news conference with Malta's prime minister, Joseph Muscat. He compared their activity to that of slave traders of centuries past, "unscrupulous men who traded human lives."

The European Union foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said this weekend's appalling human toll - which, if verified, would be the deadliest migrant tragedy ever - had "finally" fully awakened the European Union to the evils of human trafficking.

The EU has been under increasing criticism for lagging in its response to the crisis, with two shipwrecks believed to have taken the lives of as many as 1,300 migrants in the past week. Some 400 people are believed to have drowned in another capsizing on April 13.

Stopping the traffickers will be a key item on the agenda when EU leaders meet in an emergency summit Thursday in Brussels, along with a proposal to double spending on sea patrols off Europe's southern border. The 10-point plan includes a proposal to take "civil-military" action modeled on Europe's anti-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia, to capture and destroy boats used by traffickers.

Meanwhile, new details emerged about the weekend disaster, with Italian prosecutors saying hundreds of migrants were locked below deck unable to escape when the rickety boat capsized off the coast of Libya.

Speaking at a news conference in Catania, Sicily, prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said "a few hundred were forced into the hold and they were locked in and prevented from coming out." He said hundreds more were locked on a second level of the boat, which also had hundreds of migrants squeezed into its upper deck.

Salvi said the migrants rushed to one side of the boat as they saw a Portuguese-flagged container vessel approach, with the promise of rescue contributing to the disaster.

"Merchant ships don't have adequate training for rescues in the seas," Salvi warned. "The fact is, sea rescues are difficult and require professionalism. "

As with most such high seas sinkings, a precise death toll will likely never be known. Only 24 bodies have been recovered so far and only 27 survivors were rescued. One survivor, identified as a 32-year-old Bangladeshi, has put the number of people on board at as many as 950, though Salvi said the survivor had no means to verify numbers. He said the coast guard estimated more than 700 people were on board, based on its observations at the scene.

Muscat, the Maltese prime minister, called the latest tragedy "a game-changer," and said that "if Europe doesn't work together, history will judge it very badly."

Renzi said that recent events had proven that providing rescue wasn't always possible, given the conditions of the smugglers' boats and the delicacy of such operations, and that the focus needs to be on preventing the boats from leaving Libya. "Continuing to think that allowing them to depart and then chasing after them means putting at risk human lives," he said.

Even as European leaders grappled with how to respond to the crisis, more unseaworthy boats were setting off Monday on the perilous journey. Renzi said Italian ships were rushing to respond to distress calls from an inflatable life raft near the Libyan coast with 100 to 150 migrants on board and to another boat carrying about 300 people.

The International Organization for Migration earlier said its Rome office had received a distress call from three boats in need of help. The group says the caller reported 300 people on his sinking boat, with about 20 fatalities. No details were available about the other boats or their location, and it was not clear if they were the same rescues to which Renzi referred.

In a separate incident, at least three people, including a child, were killed and 93 others were rescued when a wooden boat carrying dozens of migrants who had departed from Turkey ran aground off the Greek island of Rhodes.

Dramatic video showed migrants clinging to pieces of wreckage and rescuers helping them ashore.

Prosecutors in Palermo, meanwhile, said a trafficking ring they had cracked had generated transactions worth hundreds of thousands of euros crisscrossing Europe as migrants paid not only to cross the Mediterranean but also to join relatives in northern Europe.

Prosecutor Maurizio Scalia said based on telephone intercepts, the average cost to smuggle a migrant from Eritrea or Ethiopia to Libya ran $4,000 to $5,000 (euros), while the crossing to Italy cost an additional $1,000 to $1,500 (euros). Migrants pay hundreds of dollars more to get out of holding centers and at least another $1,000 to travel to northern Europe.

Payments for each leg are made up front, often using the Islamic hawala banking system which is based on an informal honor code in which a relative in northern Europe pays a local broker and the payment information is transmitted to the actual traffickers on the ground advising them that the leg has been paid for.

Authorities identified the trafficking ring's mastermind as Ermias Ghermay, an Ethiopian who has been sought since the October 2013 shipwreck off Lampedusa that left 366 people dead. He is believed to be in Libya. Authorities issued arrest warrants for 24 people, including 14 in Italy.

Renzi said the instability in Libya was giving free reign to the traffickers, as evidenced by the escalating migrant flows, but he ruled out sending ground troops to Libya or a naval blockade of migrants, saying that would only provide a corridor for them.

Libya is a transit point for migrants fleeing conflict, repression and poverty in countries such as Eritrea, Niger, Syria, Iraq and Somalia, with increased instability there and improving weather prompting more people to attempt the dangerous crossing.

Fighting in Libya has escalated to its worst levels since the 2011 civil war that ended with the overthrow and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Malta and Italy are closest to the Libyan coast, and have received the brunt of a migrant tide that carried 219,000 people from Africa to Europe last year. Some 3,500 died or went missing along the way, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement Sunday.

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Nicole Winfield in Rome, Elena Becatoros in Athens, Stephen Calleja in Malta, Lorne Cooke in Brussels and Raf Casert in Luxembourg contributed.

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