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Ten suspects held in Sicily in migrant boat deaths

Ten suspects held in Sicily in migrant boat deaths
Mourad Botaib is taken to police offices in Palermo, Italy, on Friday. Prosecutors in Sicily detained 10 people on suspicion of smuggling and murder Friday for having allegedly crammed dozens of migrants into the airless hold of a boat where 52 bodies were found this week. (Alessandro Fucarini / Associated Press)

Prosecutors in Sicily have detained 10 suspected people traffickers believed to have crammed migrants into the airless hold of a vessel crossing from Libya in which 52 died.

Those arrested, seven Moroccans, two Syrians and a Libyan, used sticks and knives to beat back migrants packed into the hold when they tried to climb through a hatch for air, a police spokesman in Palermo alleged Friday.

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A Swedish rescue ship found the wooden vessel in the Mediterranean on Wednesday, picking up 439 migrants from onboard before breaking open the hold with axes to discover the 52 victims, who likely died of asphyxiation.

"All the statements by the migrants confirm the same version of events," Palermo prosecutor Maurizio Scalia told a press conference on Friday. "The victims were all violently forced to stay below deck in an awful condition."

Police officials interviewing migrants said they were able to identify the traffickers.

As calm summer weather permits more sailings, traffickers in Libya have been packing as many migrants as possible into flimsy wooden boats that easily capsize and dinghies that often deflate at sea.

Prosecutors believe that about 60 people in total were forced into the hold of the vessel intercepted on Wednesday — a space measuring 60 feet long, in which there was only four feet of headroom. Similar conditions were found onboard another vessel on Aug. 15 in which 49 died in the hold.

Egyptian minors who survived traveling in the hold on another vessel reported that they were forced to pay money to climb up through the hatch to breathe for a few minutes.

The Swedish ship Poseidon, which operates as part of the European Union search and rescue operation Triton, docked at Palermo on Thursday, unloading survivors from the vessel, as well as a large container in which the 52 corpses were carried.

"On the dock the smell of death conveyed the horror and you understood what really happened," said Giovanna Di Benedetto, a spokeswoman with Save the Children.

Di Benedetto said survivors who disembarked were mourning relatives and friends forced into the hold.

The United Nations has said that about 2,500 migrants have died at sea on the way to Europe this year. Some 110,000 have made the journey to Italy.

About 200 migrants were feared drowned on Friday when a boat capsized shortly after leaving the Libyan coast, Libyan officials have said.

Kington is a special correspondent.

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