ROME – Three members of Italy’s border police force are under investigation for a suspected role in a shipwreck off the country’s southern coast this year that killed more than 90 migrants, Italian news outlets reported Friday.
Quoting from a search warrant issued by prosecutors, the Corriere della Sera newspaper said investigators cited “significant anomalies” in the activity log for a motorboat Italian border police used in an abandoned search for the overcrowded migrant vessel.
A surveillance aircraft operated by European Union border and coast guard agency Frontex first spotted the old wooden boat in the Ionian Sea on the night of Feb. 25. The agency indicated to Italian authorities that no life vests were visible but the boat, which human smugglers had launched in Turkey, showed no signs of distress.
Italy’s Guardia di Finanza, or financial police, which also has a border and customs role, dispatched two patrols to “intercept the vessel.” Not long after the search was called off due to bad weather, the migrant vessel broke apart after ramming a sandbank in Calabria, the “toe” of the Italian peninsula.
Some 80 people survived. The known death toll was put at 94 after bodies were recovered in the sea or washed up on beaches, some of them weeks later. An undetermined number of migrants were believed to be missing.
Further quoting from the seven-page search warrant request, Corriere della Sera said prosecutors noted that some of the log entries were not written when the patrol boats were conducting a search but hours later. By then, the shipwreck, with its deadly consequences, was headline news.
According to Italian news reports, the three border police personnel are being investigated on suspicion of manslaughter, wrongdoing related to official documentation and causing a shipwreck. It wasn’t immediately clear if they participated in the search or were in port giving orders.
Besides the border police members, three other people are being investigated, news channel Sky TG24 and other Italian media reported. Corriere della Sera said the search warrant order blanked out the names of the other three.
Friday was a national holiday in Italy, and prosecutors' offices were closed.
Two border police boats conducted an initial search for the vessel filled with migrants. But they soon returned to port in the predawn hours of Feb. 26, because of adverse sea conditions, authorities said at the time.
Calabria prosecutors, in investigating the three border police members, contended that one of the patrol boats, a motorboat identified as V5006, was actually at the port in Crotone, Calabria, at times the log indicated it was at sea searching for the migrant vessel, Corriere della Sera said.
An Italian coast guard vessel, better equipped and constructed to search for boats in distress in rough waters, eventually set out, but by then emergency calls started coming. By the time the coast guard reached the scene, the migrant boat had already shipwrecked, bodies were in the sea and dozens of survivors were desperately trying to swim to shore.
The Italian investigation also has led to the arrest of four men suspected of being the smugglers and who were among the survivors. The last of the four was taken into custody after making his way to Austria, which turned him over to Italian authorities in late April.
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