Malta to bury 24 victims of latest shipwreck tragedy

MILAN (AP) - An Italian coast guard ship headed toward Sicily Monday with 28 survivors of what could be the Mediterranean's deadliest migrant tragedy, as EU foreign ministers gathered for an emergency meeting on the growing crisis as migrants flee instability in Libya at unprecedented rates.

One survivor, identified as a 32-year-old Bangladeshi, has put the number of people on board the smugglers' boat when it capsized near the Libyan coast at 950, and only a handful have been rescued. The survivor was flown Sunday by helicopter to Catania, in Sicily, where he was interviewed by prosecutors. He was being treated in a hospital.

"He is pretty well now and he is reporting that there were really many, many persons including children on the boat. So it's confirming the terrible news," said Carlotta Sami, a U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman.

International agencies stressed that the information provided to prosecutors still needs to be confirmed.

Earlier Friday, the Italian coast guard ship Gregoretti brought the bodies of 24 victims to Malta, where the dead will be buried.

All 24 were adult men, according to the Maltese Army.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that survivors spoke of "haunting experiences."

The Maltese Army said that items recovered from the site of the tragedy included a diary, which has been passed on to Italian authorities for investigation.

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi told private Italian radio RTL he will ask his EU counterparts on Monday to confront instability in Libya more decisively than in the past, but he ruled out ground troops.

"At this moment to intervene with international forces on the ground is a risk that is absolutely excessive," Renzi said. "We cannot think about sending tens of thousands of men without a strategy, on a wave of emotion."

Renzi said he would ask his European counterparts to participate in a joint operation targeting smugglers. He said that Italy has so far arrested nearly 1,000, but needs help.

Renzi met in Washington last week with President Barack Obama, who also pledged to help on Libya.

EU foreign ministers are meeting in Luxembourg Monday focusing on the migration crisis and the role of the conflict in Libya fueling the influx. The EU's top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has canceled a trip to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla to attend.

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.

Rebel groups that fought against him kept their weapons and militias mushroomed in number. The country now has rival governments - the internationally recognized one in the eastern city of Tobruk, and an Islamist-backed one in the capital, Tripoli. The two sides have been negotiating in Morocco to end the fighting.

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.


Stephen Calleja in Malta and Lorne Cooke in Luxembourg contributed.

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