Captain and First Mate of Stricken Med Boat Arrested in Sicily As Death Toll Rises

Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images
Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images

Italian police have arrested the captain and first mate of the ship which foundered in the Mediterranean over the weekend, causing catastrophic loss of life. Both have been charged with people trafficking; the captain has also been charged with reckless homicide, accused of taking actions that led to the sinking of the boat.

The two men have been named as Mohammed Ali Malek, a 27 year old Tunisian thought to be the captain of the vessel, and Syrian national Mahmud Bikhit, 25.  The two were amongst 27 survivors who arrived in Catania, Sicily, on Monday evening, the Guardian has reported.

Prosecutors believe that two actions led to the sinking of their vessel: firstly the captain mistakenly ramming his boat into a Portuguese merchant ship which had come to their rescue, followed by the passengers on board shifting their position, further destabilising the boat already left listing by the ramming. It is thought that Malek was steering erratically to avoid being identified as the captain of his vessel later on.

A spokesman from the office of Catania prosecutor Giovanni Salvi stressed that none of the crew on the Portuguese ship King Jacob are under investigation, and that her crew did their job in coming to the rescue of the stricken migrant ship. He added that the actions of the crew “in no way contributed to the deadly event”

The United Nations today put the death toll at at least 800. It is believed that the passengers in the lower two tiers of the boat, including women and children, had been locked in, leaving them unable to escape as the boat sank.

Mr Salvi told reporters: “Two people are currently held in custody following the testimony of survivors: the captain, of Tunisian origins, and a Syrian male national. The remaining 25 migrants are free. They will be identified following immediate care and are expected to request asylum.”

The president of the Italian Red Cross, Francesco Rocca, said: “[The] migrants were very shocked, but overall in good conditions. Only three people needed particular care. One is being hospitalised.”

Another person involved in the humanitarian efforts told the Guardian: “They are very distressed. They could express themselves but most of them didn’t say much and you can’t push them too much in these circumstances … They were all young. The average age 25, I would say.”

In total, the Italian coastguard said it had rescued 638 migrants in six different operations on Monday alone. Greek authorities said they had picked up a further 126 migrants who had entered illegally on three separate vessels, while the Merchant Marine Ministry said 42 people, including seven children, were taken off a small boat near the eastern Aegean Sea islet of Agathonissi. Another 84 were located in two more incidents on Tuesday off the coasts of Greek islets.

Leaders from the European Member States meet on Thursday at a summit to review the crisis.