Lampedusa boat disaster: Row in Italy over deaths

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Media captionThe BBC's Julian Miglierini says the migrants had almost made it to the coast, sinking just 800m away

Italy's coastguard has denied that it was slow to respond to the sinking of a boat carrying African migrants off the island of Lampedusa on Thursday.

The accusations were made by a fisherman who took part in the rescue and a local newspaper.

So far, 111 bodies have been recovered, and 155 people survived, but about 200 are still unaccounted for.

High winds have prevented divers from reaching the boat, restricting rescuers to an aerial search.

France has called for an urgent meeting of EU states following the tragedy.

"European political officials must talk, and soon," said French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

"It is up to them to meet to find a proper solution; compassion is not enough."

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Media captionA man from Eritrea is rescued: "You have to search or 480 people are going to die"

Tens of thousands of migrants attempt the perilous crossing from North Africa to Sicily and other Italian islands each year, and accidents are common - but this week's shipwreck was among the deadliest on record.

'Clandestine immigration'

The survivors are to be placed under investigation for "clandestine immigration", as provided for by a controversial immigration law pushed through by right-wing parties in 2002.

Italy has said it will amend immigration laws and has called for European help.

Italian members of parliament have complained that some of its provisions discourage people from helping migrants in distress.

The fisherman who arrived first at the site of the accident, Vito Fiorino, has accused the coastguard of wasting time by filming footage of rescue efforts.

"They refused to take on board some people we'd already saved because they said protocol forbade it," he was quoted as saying by Ansa news agency.

A report in local newspaper La Sicilia said two boats belonging to Italy's Financial Guard, which carries out a range of police and rescue duties, had remained in port.

The coastguard denied that there was any delay in its rescue effort.

"After we received the alarm by radio at 07:00 we immediately intervened with out boats, arriving on at the site of the shipwreck at 07:20," it said in a statement.

Judicial authorities said they had no evidence of delays.

The head of a fishermen's association, Toto Martello, denied in turn reports that three fishermen drove straight past the scene of the accident.

Key migrant routes to southern Europe

"The fishermen save lives," he told Ansa. "We rebut the accusations that we didn't help people who were dying at sea."

Other fishermen said there were so many migrant boat wrecks near Lampedusa that they damaged their nets every time they went out.

"Only now they become aware of this situation?" said Salvatore D'Ancona. "It's been 20 years that this is happening."

The fishermen laid a wreath of flowers at sea, with some 10 fishing vessels blowing their horns for the victims.

Image caption Fishermen cast flowers on Saturday in the sea near spot where the ship sank
Image caption This image released by the Italian coastguard shows some of the migrants who were rescued
Image caption But their boat lies at the bottom of the sea, along with many bodies of those who did not survive
Image caption A hangar at Lampedusa'a airport has been turned into a temporary mortuary
Image caption Residents held a candlelit procession through the streets of the island

The 20m (66ft) boat carrying some 500 people - mostly from Eritrea and Somalia - was approaching Lampedusa early on Thursday when it began taking on water its motor stopped working.

Some of those on board then reportedly set fire to a piece of material to try to attract the attention of passing ships, only to have the fire spread to the rest of the boat.

The boat - which set sail from the Libyan port of Misrata - is thought to have capsized when everyone moved to one side.

Of the bodies recovered so far 58 were men, 49 were women and two were children of one and six years old.