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Italy Calls On EU To Act After Migrants Drown In Mediterranean

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In a single moment on the Mediterranean Sea, hope turned into horror - hundreds of people crowded on a boat. They were in the waters off Libya. They were heading for Europe, it's believed, when their boat capsized. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is tracking what's called the Mediterranean's worst tragedy in living memory.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Around midnight Saturday, the Italian Coast Guard received a distress call from a vessel some 70 miles north of the Libyan coast. UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said the caller reported too many people were on board.

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CARLOTTA SAMI: Seven hundred people, probably more, on board on this single boat, were in big difficulty. And they were approached by a merchant vessel soon as they can see it; probably people started to move on board and the boat capsized.

POGGIOLI: The Italian Coast Guard led a search and rescue operation involving 20 vessels and three helicopters, but only 28 people had been rescued and 24 bodies recovered. The capsized boat sunk to the bottom of the sea. One survivor, a seriously injured Bangladeshi who was immediately evacuated by helicopter to a hospital in Sicily, told a prosecutor that there had been as many as 950 people on board. He said many were locked in the hold by the traffickers before departure. But Italian authorities said they could not confirm the exact number of people on board. As reports of the tragedy came in, one of the first to speak out was Pope Francis. He made a fervent appeal to the international community to take speedy and decisive action to prevent such tragedies, and he described the victims.

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POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) Hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of wars - they were seeking happiness.

POGGIOLI: The latest disaster in the mounting migrant crisis triggered strong reactions by right-wing politicians. Northern League leader Matteo Salvini ratcheted up his party's anti-immigrant rhetoric.

MATTEO SALVINI: (Through interpreter) They make the crossing. They arrive here. They go to our hotels. They disappear - social tension explodes. What will it take for the U.N., NATO and the disastrous European Union to organize a naval blockade off the Libyan coast to prevent boats from leaving and to distinguish real refugees from illegal immigrants?

POGGIOLI: Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi labeled these remarks of a demagogue. He cut short a scheduled trip to northern Italy and held an emergency cabinet session in Rome. Later at a press conference, Renzi repeated his appeal to Italy's European partners to provide much bigger naval resources to save migrant lives at sea.

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PRIME MINISTER MATTEO RENZI: (Through interpreter) We are asking not to be left alone. Our political priority is not just a security issue. We want to ensure the dignity of human beings and block human traffickers. The new slave traders of the 21st century must not believe that Europe considers this one of the least important issues on its agenda.

POGGIOLI: The issue is on the agenda today at a previously scheduled EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg. And an emergency meeting of EU government leaders might take place later this week. There's already been a shift in tone among many European leaders. French President Francois Hollande said Europe must mobilize more ships, more overflights by aircraft. And European Parliament President Martin Schulz said it's a shame and a confession of failure that many countries run away from responsibility and how little money we provide for rescue missions. Long pressed by anti-immigrant parties that wanted a fortressed Europe, many governments are now facing a backlash for having neglected the humanitarian disaster taking place in the waters of the Mediterranean. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.