25 illegal immigrants found dead in hold of 'slave ship' after desperate attempt to flee Libya
Twenty-five illegal immigrants have been found dead after being packed into the hold of a fishing boat as it fled from war-torn Libya, Italian coastguards revealed today.
The men are believed to have been overcome by engine fumes as they were squashed together 'like sardines' on a boat carrying 271 other people which had left Libya three days ago.
Officials made the grim discovery early today after it was spotted on radar screens approaching the island of Lampedusa, a tiny rocky outcrop just 90 miles from the north African coast.
Since the Arab uprisings earlier this year, more than 25,000 illegal immigrants have flooded onto the Italian island, overwhelming resources and creating a humanitarian emergency.
Officials said that the 271 men, women and children on the boat were transferred onto two coastguard vessels and then taken to a holding centre on Lampedusa.
A coastguard spokesman in Lampedusa said: 'When we went out to the boat nobody mentioned the fact that there were dead bodies in the hold. They had been packed in like sardines and had been overcome by the engine fumes.
'Those that died were packed into the engine room and had a little hole of about 50cm for fresh air. It was a horrific scene - it was like a slave ship.'
TV footage showed the bodies lined up along the quayside in Lampedusa in blue body bags, awaiting for an ambulance to take them to the island's mortuary.
In June officials from the European Union's border protection agency said that 2,500 illegal immigrants a week were flooding into Europe through Italy.
In the first three months of this year, 33,000 people entered Europe illegally, with 22,600 coming through Italy, according to the EU's Warsaw-based agency Frontex.
Most of those were economic migrants from Tunisia and sub-Sahran Africa who had fled countries that had been hit by popular uprisings in what was dubbed the Arab Spring.
Many of them came through the rocky Italian outcrop of Lampedusa on rickety fishing boats, pushing the island's limited resources to the limit with numbers at one point being double that of the 5,000 local inhabitants.
On the quayside behind the retrieved boat lie the bodies of the 25 men whou were found crammed in its engine room
Hundreds of illegal immigrants have drowned in their attempts to cross from north Africa with dozens of boats sinking and others still missing. Officials say that calmer seas will increase traffic throughout the summer months.
Italy has complained that other European states are not doing enough to help with the situation and there was a tense stand-off with France which simply sent them back when they crossed over.
Before the civil war, Libyan patrol boats stopped any vessel attempting to set sail, in a deal agreed with Italy.
Before the bombing campaign started, Colonel Gaddafi threatened to turn Europe 'black through illegal immigration' in an attempt to ward off military intervention.