LAMPEDUSA, Italy — Italian rescuers said Saturday they planned to raise a corpse-filled wreck after a tragedy in which 300 African asylum-seekers are feared dead, as fishermen laid a wreath at sea for the victims.
Rough seas have suspended the search, and controversy has erupted over apparent delays in the rescue and unsanitary conditions for child survivors in a badly overcrowded refugee center.
"We have a legal but also a moral responsibility to recover all the bodies," said Leonardo Ricci, a spokesman for rescuers on the island of Lampedusa.
"There are hundreds of families that are waiting for news," he said, adding that there was a "preliminary plan" to raise the wreck.
Divers spoke of "dozens, maybe hundreds" of bodies trapped in the wreck, which lies on the seabed at a depth of about 130 feet and within sight of the shore of Italy's southernmost point.
Officials said more bodies may have been lost forever due to strong currents around the island.
Emergency workers have recovered 111 bodies so far and plucked 155 survivors from the sea.
It is feared the final death toll could rise to close to 300, which would make this the worst ever Mediterranean refugee tragedy after a previous one in 1996, also off Italian shores, claimed 283 lives.
Fishermen from the island, which has a population of just 6,000 and is closer to north Africa than to Italy, took their boats out to sea on Saturday in a commemoration for the drowned.
"The dead cannot be forgotten, they have to be commemorated because they are people who tried to come and work, to live a better life," said local fisherman Salvatore Martello as he cast a wreath.
Italy has asked the European Union for greater assistance in stemming the influx of refugees, with 30,000 reported to have landed so far in 2013 — more than four times the number for all of 2012.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called Saturday for a meeting of European countries on border management after the tragic shipwreck.
"European political officials must talk, and soon," Ayrault said, adding: "It is up to them to meet to find a proper solution; compassion is not enough."
In Italy there have been growing calls for an overhaul of legislation against people accused of facilitating irregular immigration, a provision that critics say could penalize potential rescuers.
The coast guard has also been forced to defend itself after accusations from the sailors who were first at the scene that bureaucratic delays in launching the official rescue had cost lives.
One survivor is the boat's 35-year-old Tunisian skipper, who has been detained as prosecutors weigh charges against him.
Local prosecutor Ignazio Fonzo said the inquiry was proving "difficult" because survivors being heard as witnesses officially had to be considered suspects under the illegal immigration law and therefore had to be provided with defense lawyers as well as interpreters.
The Tunisian was already held in April over a previous landing and deported back to Tunisia in a case that observers said pointed to the role played by ruthless people-smuggling rings.
The boat left Libya with an estimated 450 to 500 on board, mostly Eritreans and Somalis.
Survivors said they set fire to a blanket to alert the coast guard when the boat began taking on water just a few hundred meters from Italy's coast.
The fire quickly spread, causing panic, and the boat capsized and eventually sank as its terrified passengers ran to one side and jumped into the sea.
Witnesses — mainly fishermen and tourists — spoke of terrifying scenes, with hundreds of people with outstretched arms in the water, which was thick with the fuel oil that spilled from the boat.
Forty unaccompanied minors aged 11 to 17 who were among the survivors are being housed in a 250-bed refugee center that has already taken in more than 1,000 people, with many being forced to sleep outside.
After touring the center with a parliamentary group on Saturday, Khalid Chaouki, a Moroccan-born Italian lawmaker, said: "We found shameful conditions, which are not worthy of a civilized society. This is absolutely unacceptable."
© AFP 2014