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'Political stunt': Protests as Italian ministers visit deadly migrant shipwreck site

'Political stunt': Protests as Italian ministers visit deadly migrant shipwreck site
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrives on March 9th to hold a cabinet meeting at the town hall of Cutro near the site of a shipwreck which killed at least 72 people. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her ministers travelled to Calabria on Thursday for a meeting near the site of February's fatal shipwreck, as protesters accused the government of risking lives with its migration policies.

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At least 72 people, including many children, died when their overcrowded boat sank in stormy weather just off the coast of the southern region of Calabria on February 26th.

Emotions in Cutro and Crotone, the towns nearest the shipwreck, were still running high almost two weeks later, as relatives arrive from afar to claim their dead. Bodies were still being spotted out at sea this week or washing up on beaches.

"Nobody saved them. And they could have," read a poster with a child's drawing of a family on a storm-tossed boat, hung outside the sports hall in Crotone where the coffins of the drowned have been laid out.

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Ahead of the cabinet's afternoon meeting planned in Cutro, several dozen protesters surrounded by riot police gathered in the town centre, some yelling "Step down, assassins!"

Protestor Antonio Viterutti told AFP the visit by Meloni and her ministers was an attempt to deflect attention from criticism.

"I want to denounce the hypocrisy of the Italian government, that leaves a boatload of people fleeing hunger, war and misery to die at sea and comes here today to do a political stunt," said the 28-year-old student.

Protestors hold a banner reading “Not in our name. Calabria has a big heart, you don’t” ahead of the arrival of government ministers in the town of Cutro 11 days after a migrant shipwreck killed at least 72. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

Ministers are expected to agree new rules stiffening punishments for people traffickers as well as boosting legal routes for foreign workers, the prime minister's office said.

On a Crotone beach, still littered with shipwreck debris, stands a cross built out of wood from the boat that had been carrying around 180 people.

READ ALSO: Italy launches probe into deadly shipwreck as new rescue saves hundreds

"I hold them in my heart - all these children, these women who came to find peace and instead found death," said Maria Panebianco, an 80-year-old resident. "It pains me. It pains me a lot."

The interior ministry said Thursday it had begun the process of sending back the bodies of migrants to their home countries, including a planned operation to return 16 bodies to Afghanistan.

The body of one Afghan migrant was buried at the Crotone cemetery this week, while the bodies of seven others were transferred to the Muslim cemetery in Bologna, it said.

Italian officials handle coffins containing the bodies of the people who drowned in a shipwreck off Calabria's coast on Sunday, February 26th. (Photo by Alessandro SERRANO / AFP)

Meloni's far-right Brothers of Italy party won elections last year on a pledge to stop sea arrivals, and her governing coalition, which includes Matteo Salvini's anti-immigrant League, has clamped down on charity rescue boats.

Critics say the government's policy of treating migrant boats in the Central Mediterranean as a law enforcement issue, rather than a humanitarian one, may have fatally delayed the rescue last month.

Meloni and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi have rejected accusations they failed to intervene to save the boat, which set off from Turkey and was carrying Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani and Syrian nationals.

President of the Calabria region, Roberto Occhiuto (L) greets Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani, and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Infrastructure, Matteo Salvini, on their arrival at the town hall of Cutro. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

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Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the disaster, which occurred despite European Union border agency Frontex saying it had alerted Italian authorities to the heavily overcrowded boat.

'Not warned'

Piantedosi, fiercely criticised for initially blaming the victims for trusting their lives to traffickers, told parliament on Tuesday that Frontex had not said the boat was in any danger.

But opposition leaders insist the coastguard is supposed to rescue all vessels carrying migrants because boats run by human traffickers are inevitably dangerously overcrowded and ill-equipped.

They have also asked why a rescue operation was not launched once police boats that had been sent out to meet the vessel were forced to turn back in increasingly rough seas.

Local residents protest before a government meeting in Cutro, Calabria, near the site of the deadly migrant shipwreck. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

A member of parliament who visited some of the 80 survivors told La Repubblica daily on Tuesday that they had been kept in poor conditions, without even enough beds or special provisions for families and minors.

Meloni has called for the EU to further bolster efforts to tackle the issue that she says penalises Italy.

The country records tens of thousands of arrivals by sea yearly, mainly from North Africa.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has called on the EU to "redouble efforts" on an action plan for the Central Mediterranean, particularly regarding the distribution of asylum seekers among member states.

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