Migrant boat 'shot at' as it left Libya

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionItalian Navy helicopter footage showed the rescue attempt

Migrants who survived when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean say they were were shot at as they left Libya.

One survivor told the BBC that people on the boat were shot, and that bullet holes caused the boat to start sinking.

At least 33 people died in the incident, a week after more than 350 migrants died in another shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Italy said on Sunday that it would step up naval and air patrols in an effort to prevent further sinkings.

The joint navy and air force operation would begin on Monday, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said.

Defence Minister Mario Mauro said Italy intended to triple its presence in the southern Mediterranean.

That had become necessary "in part by the fact that Libya is currently a 'non-state'," he told Italian newspaper Avvenire.

'Live rounds'

As many as 400 people were on board the boat that sank on Friday, many of them reportedly fleeing the conflict in Syria.

The man who spoke to the BBC said he was originally from a Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital, Damascus. He did not want to be identified but gave his name as Abde.

He suggested that it was the Libyan coast guard that had fired at the boat, though other accounts suggested that rival trafficking gangs or Libyan militiamen may have been to blame.

"When we got out in the international waters, they came after us and shot some fires in the air and we kept moving," said Abde.

"When we got inside the Italian waters, they lost hope and started shooting us with live rounds.

"They shot two of the skippers. Some of the women got shot. The last thing they shot the engine room in the bottom of the boat and that's when the water started to get inside the ship."

Those on the boat raised the alarm with the Red Cross, but had to wait for up to an hour-and-a-half before being rescued, he said.

Some survivors were taken to Malta, and some to Lampedusa.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said three people were wounded in the shooting, citing reports from migrants. It said the shots were fired "perhaps by militiamen who shot to kill".

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called for an investigation.

Image caption The migrants were rescued by a Maltese patrol boat

"They escaped bullets and bombs only to perish before they could ever claim asylum," he said of the migrants.

Many of those who attempt the perilous journey north across the Mediterranean come from African or Middle Eastern countries suffering from war and repression.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has responded to the latest disasters urging Europe to act, saying that a "cemetery" was being created in the Mediterranean.

Mr Muscat visited Libya on Sunday, where he discussed the issue of migrant boats with Libyan counterpart Ali Zeidan.

"We are determined to deal with the problem," Mr Zeidan said.

"Several measures have been taken in terms of equipment and the addition of maritime police to increase the monitoring of our shores," he added.

"But, as you know, human traffickers have gained considerable expertise on this matter and despite tightening measures sometimes it is out of the hands of the authorities."

Armed militias still hold some power in parts of Libya since they helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Mr Zeidan was himself seized by militiamen on Thursday and held for several hours before being released.