A dozen Christian asylum seekers drowned in the Mediterranean after they were thrown overboard by Muslim migrants in a furious row fueled by “religious hatred” on a smuggler boat sailing from Libya to Italy.
Italian police last night were investigating the deaths, which emerged from testimony provided by the 100 other asylum seekers on board the vessel. The boat was rescued by Italian ships and brought to Palermo in Sicily.
Fifteen Muslim migrants, believed to be from Senegal, Ivory Coast,and Mali, were arrested, accused of having thrown the Christians from Ghana and Nigeria into the sea after the fight broke out.
They are suspected of being responsible for “multiple aggravated murders, motivated by religious hatred”, police said.
“The threats then materialised and 12 people, all Nigerian and Ghanaian, are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean,” they said.
The attackers were identified by other refugees, some of whom were in tears as they recounted the story to Italian authorities.
It appears to be the first case of deaths being caused by a clash between Muslim and Christian asylum seekers on board the boats that have so far this year brought 15,000 migrants to Italian shores from North Africa.
Conservative politicians accused the centre-Left government of Matteo Renzi of allowing “fundamentalists” into Italy and called for a blockade of the refugee boats.
“Intervention is now urgent because what has happened is extremely worrying,” said Maurizio Gasparri, a senator with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. “The Renzi government is bringing in Islamist fundamentalists and using Italian ships as taxis for potential jihadists.”
Ignazio La Russa, another centre-Right politician, said: “The government is not only bringing to its knees the social fabric of our cities [through immigration] but is allowing onto Italian soil fundamentalist terrorists.”
A further 41 migrants were reported yesterday to have died in a separate incident in which a small boat sank in the Mediterranean.
Four survivors told Italian police and humanitarian organisations that their inflatable dinghy sank not long after leaving the coast of Libya with 45 people on board.
The capsizing, which is being investigated, came just days after 400 people were reported to have drowned in another shipwreck north of the Libyan coast.
Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian foreign minister, said the influx of migrants could only be tackled if the unrest in Libya was addressed by the international community.
The breakdown of law and order following the toppling of Muammar Gadaffi in 2011 has enabled people smuggling gangs to act with impunity, making millions of pounds from sending migrants across the Mediterranean.
In an interview on Thursday with Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily, the minister said it might be necessary to take military action against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), which is worsening the security situation in parts of Libya, particularly the east.
Mr Gentiloni raised the prospect of “targeted anti-terrorist strikes” against Isil, as well as action against people smuggling gangs.
Libya desperately needed a unified government and “collaboration with neighbouring countries for the acceptance of refugees,” he said.
Time was running out, he warned, amid warnings from humanitarian agencies that up to half a million migrants may try to cross the Mediterranean this year – a figure that would dwarf the 170,000 who reached Italy last year.
“We don’t have months and months. The double risk of an advance of the Islamic State group in Libya and the waves of migrants means we are in a race against the clock.”