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Disasters

EU ministers gather to discuss Lampedusa tragedy, help for Italy

European interior ministers have gathered to discuss a call from Italy for more help over an influx of migrants from across the Mediterranean. There was a call for a large-scale operation to save other stranded migrants.

EU ministers discuss migration

The ministers met on Tuesday morning to discuss the deaths off the Italian coast, as well as helping Italy to dealing with its influx of migrants.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has appealed for more European help in light of the tragedy, with Rome pressing for the matter to be placed on the agenda at the talks in Luxembourg.

"Italy cannot be the first country to have everything on its shoulders," Letta had said earlier. Italy is also calling for the issue to be discussed at an EU summit set for later this month.

Ahead of the meeting, EU Interior Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said that the EU border agency Frontex should carry out a large-scale operation to rescue migrants stranded in the Mediterranean "from Cyprus to Spain ."

However, speaking ahead of the meeting, Malmstrom said she did not expect that EU nations would agree to take a share of the influx from Italy.

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich rejected the idea of accepting more migrants, saying that figures for the number of asylum seekers in various states did not show that Italy was taking an undue share of the burden.

Frontex is believed to have saved some 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean during the past two years, but has seen its buget slip from 118 million euros ($160 million) in 2011 to 85 million euros this year.

The Italian premier has blamed a failure of border controls in Libya, which is the departure point for many of the boats, including the vessel that sank at Lampedusa, resulting in 232 deaths counted so far.

Italy's integration Minister Cecile Kyenge on Sunday called for a change in the domestic law, which punishes anyone accused of facilitating the landings. The rules have been blamed for deterring would-be rescuers.

Official figures show that 30,100 would-be asylum seekers arrived in Italy between January and September this year. The number compares to less than 8,000 in 2012, with the flow intensifying over the past two months - in particular from Syria, Somalia and Eritrea.

Rescuers reach hull

The trawler that sunk had been within sight of Lampedusa when a fire sparked a panic on board, causing the boat to capsize as people rushed to one side of the vessel.

Divers on Monday "unpacked a wall of people," recovering 38 bodies as they reached the boat's hull for the first time. Many more migrants, mostly believed to be from Eritrea, remain missing.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is due to visit Lampedusa on Wednesday after an invitation from Letta to "come and see for himself."

On Monday, The European Parliament held a minute's silence at the beginning of its plenary session in the French city of Strasbourg.

"In the silence in this room, there are mixed in the screams of children who see their parents drown, the screams of parents who cannot save their children," said parliament President Martin Schulz. "(Our) wealth should make it our duty to help people who seek protection from us."

Meanwhile, the influx from Africa and the Middle East continued, as a further 200 people stranded at sea were reported to have been rescued by passing vessels off the Italian coast and taken to the Sicilian town of Pozzollo.

On Sunday, the Italian coastguard intercepted two migrant boats off the coast of Sicily. The news agency DPA said the vessels were carrying more than 350 people, most of whom said they had come from Egypt and Syria.

rc/hc (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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