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'Ghost shipwreck' found off Sicily

identity card
An identity card from one of the passengers  

PORTOPALO, Sicily -- A newspaper has published pictures it says are of a sunken ship and corpses of some 283 illegal immigrants who drowned as it went down off the Sicilian coast.

The Italian daily La Repubblica said the ship sank five years ago but was never recorded.

The paper published the photos on Friday, showing a vessel and bodies of the passengers it said drowned trying to reach Europe's southern coast in 1996.

Authorities -- including Harbour police, Navy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of the Interior -- never admitted the shipwreck occurred, La Repubblica said.

But the pictures, taken from an underwater video camera, provide proof the shipwreck -- one of the worst in the Mediterranean since WWII -- took place.

A submarine robot was used to search the Sicily Strait and international waters more than 30 km (19 miles) off Capo Passero, where Sicily and Italy border. The robot broadcasted images of the ship, the rent prow, the bodies of victims and their personal belongings.

The passengers were mainly from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Interest in the ship was rekindled when an identity card from one of the passengers was found and handed over to Italian authorities.

Images of shipwreck  

La Repubblica said it commissioned the search for the wreckage because the tragedy had been so long ignored. "The authorities treated the accident as a fisherman's tale," it said.

Survivors said the collision took place in the Mediterranean between Malta and Sicily while a Honduran-flagged cargo ship called Iohan was transferring nearly 300 immigrants to a smaller Maltese vessel to take them to a European port.

The weight was too much for the Maltese ship and it began to slowly sink. The captain changed the course and veered towards the Iohan to be rescued before the ship was totally flooded.

The Iohan crew members also realised what was happening and headed back towards the Maltese ship. The two vessels crashed and broke the prow off the Maltese ship, sending it to the bottom of the sea.

After 29 survivors made it to Greece, rescue teams from both Italy and Greece searched the area, but reported no bodies or wreckage.

La Repubblica said the wreck was lying in international waters off the coast of Portopalo, a port village in southern Sicily, at a depth of 108 meters (356 feet).

The newspaper said bodies floated up in Portopalo for several weeks, but fishermen who found them simply tossed them back into the sea.

It quoted several villagers as saying the fishermen did not want to waste time with police reports.

"It was hard, but in a certain way inevitable," the village deputy mayor, Michele Taccone, was quoted as saying. "The fishermen couldn't afford the long time bureaucracy takes."

Several of the photos showed skeletons half-buried under the sand or trapped inside the ship. Another showed a shoe. Others showed the wreckage of the 18-metre (59-foot) vessel.

Survivors said they had paid between $5,000 and 8,000 for the voyage.

• La Repubblica

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