ROME (Reuters) – A fourth suspected human trafficker has been arrested in connection with a shipwreck off southern Italy last month in which at least 72 people died, an Italian police official said.
The suspect, a 27-year-old Turkish national, was caught in Austria on Tuesday evening after managing to escape the scene of the disaster in the early hours of Feb. 26, the official said, giving no further information.
Three alleged traffickers, one Turk and two Pakistanis, were detained in the immediate aftermath of the sinking after survivors identified them to police.
The wooden boat, crammed with an estimated 180 migrants, set sail from Turkey on Feb. 22 and broke apart on rocks five days later within sight of the village of Steccato di Cutro.
So far, 72 bodies have been retrieved, including those of 28 minors and 30 women. Seventy-nine people survived and around 30 are still missing.
Relatives of the dead staged a protest in front of a sports hall in the nearby town of Crotone, where the bodies are being kept, after local officials said the coffins were being sent for burial to a Muslim cemetery in the northern city of Bologna.
Most of the dead came from Afghanistan and their families are calling for the bodies to be sent back home.
The Italian government promised on Wednesday to respect their wishes but said it was proving difficult to organise a flight to Afghanistan and added that the planned burial in Bologna was only an interim solution.
“This is a temporary and not a definitive measure,” the interior ministry said in a statement. “We will follow the requests of each family… If repatriation of the body is requested, the Italian State will bear all the costs.”
Prosecutors have launched two investigations into the disaster – one into the traffickers and another into whether enough was done by Italian authorities to avoid the tragedy.
The Italian government has denied accusations it delayed a rescue operation after receiving a report from a plane operated by the European Union Frontex border force that the boat was approaching southern Italy in rough seas.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Tuesday that Frontex did not say the boat had any problem navigating, adding that Italy’s coastal services had “operated in a correct fashion”.
Meloni is due to hold a cabinet meeting in Cutro on Thursday and is expected to approve a bill that will increase penalties on human traffickers.