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Immigrants drown, abandoned by smugglers
By Hu Xiao (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-03-28 06:09

Italian police are hunting two Maltese men believed to have caused the deaths of at least six would-be illegal immigrants from Asia, according to the Chinese Embassy in Italy.

The six people died off the south coast of Sicily on Thursday and three others are still missing after smugglers threw them off a boat, possibly to evade capture by police, authorities said.

Rescue teams alerted by a passing merchant ship found six survivors struggling in the water nearly 23 kilometres south of Sicily.

The victims are thought to be Chinese, according to local media.

"So far, we have not received any confirmation [that they are Chinese] from the Italian side," an official from the embassy told China Daily yesterday.

He said because the incident coincided with Easter, it would take one or two more days for the local authorities to release official confirmation, adding that the embassy has learned that the survivors are being cared for by the local police. Embassy staff cannot visit the survivors if their nationalities have not been confirmed.

The survivors say they boarded a boat in Malta for the trip to Italy but were forced at gunpoint to jump into the sea when they were still many miles from the coast.

Some of those on board reportedly could not swim. The water was close to freezing at the time. Later, the Italian coastguard was alerted by a Turkish merchant ship that several people were in the sea in the strait that separates the Italian island from the Tunisian coast, according to local media.

An autopsy carried out on a dead woman in Ragusa on Friday showed she actually succumbed to blows to the head before she was thrown overboard, reported The Times of Malta.

The Office of the Attorney in Modica has opened an inquiry into the case.

Investigators believe the smugglers are part of a large organized crime ring based in Asia that smuggles illegal immigrants to Italy through Malta, Italian news agency ANSA said.

Rome has asked the Maltese Government to look into the matter, a spokesman for the Home Affairs Minister told The Times of Malta.

Small boats carrying illegal migrants regularly make their way to Italy.

(China Daily 03/28/2005 page2)

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