A week of shipwrecks and death in the Mediterranean culminated on Sunday with harrowing testimony from migrant survivors who said another 500 people including 40 children had drowned, bringing the number of feared dead to 700.
Brought to safety in the Italian ports of Taranto and Pozzallo, survivors told the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) and Save the Children how their boat sank on Thursday morning after a high-seas drama which saw one woman decapitated.
"We'll never know the exact number, we'll never know their identity, but survivors tell that over 500 human beings died," Carlotta Sami, UNHRC spokeswoman, said on Twitter.
With some 100 people missing after a boat sank on Wednesday, and 45 bodies recovered from a wreck that happened on Friday, the UNHCR said it feared up to 700 people had drowned in the Mediterranean this week.
Giovanna Di Benedetto, Save the Children's spokesperson in Sicily, told AFP it was impossible to verify the numbers involved but survivors of Thursday's wreck spoke of around 1,100 people setting out from Libya on Wednesday in two fishing boats and a dinghy.
"The first boat, carrying some 500 people, was reportedly towing the second, which was carrying another 500. But the second boat began to sink. Some people tried to swim to the first boat, others held onto the rope linking the vessels," she said.
According to the survivors, the first boat's Sudanese captain cut the rope, which snapped back and decapitated a woman. The second boat quickly sank, taking those packed tightly into the hold down with it.
The Sudanese was arrested on his arrival in Pozzallo along with three other suspected people traffickers, Italian media reports said.
"We tried everything to stop the water, to bail it out of the boat," a Nigerian girl told cultural mediators, according to La Stampa daily.
"We used our hands, plastic glasses. For two hours we fought against the water but it was useless. It began to flood the boat, and those below deck had no chance. Women, men, children, many children, were trapped, and drowned," she said.
Those who survived told mediators the dead included "around 40 children, including many newborns", La Repubblica daily said.
"I saw my mother and 11-year old sister die," Kidane from Eritrea, 13, told the aid organisations. "There were bodies everywhere".
A bout of good weather as summer arrives has kicked off a fresh stream of boats attempting to make the perilous crossing from Libya to Italy. Italian news agency Ansa said some 70 dinghies and 10 boats had set off over the past week. Over 15 a day.
Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said Saturday that Europe needed "a quick agreement with Libya and African countries" to halt the crisis.
The chaos in the North African country since Muammar Gaddafi's fall in 2011 has been exploited by people traffickers.
Migrants interviewed by La Repubblica in Sicily told the daily a new "head trafficker" called Osama had taken control of departures from Libya's beaches and was offering "cut-price" deals of €400 for the boat journey to lure in new customers.
"I was held captive for six months in a basement of an abandoned building in Sabratha. I saw many people executed, those who tried to escape were killed by the guards, who were all Libyans," a Nigerian migrant told the newspaper.
European Parliament president Martin Schulz said in an interview with the Italian daily on Sunday that Italy's "migration compact" idea was "the best proposal so far" for stopping the boat crossings and preventing deaths.
Italy wants to persuade African countries to help close migrant routes to Europe and take back some of those arriving via Libya in exchange for increased aid and investment.
Germany has made it clear, however, that it is against one of the elements of Italy's plan: the issuing of EU-Africa bonds to finance it.
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