ROME (Reuters) - More than 100 survivors of a shipwreck in which hundreds of African immigrants died burst through the gates of a holding center on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Monday in a protest against the refusal of authorities to allow them to attend a funeral ceremony for the victims.
The survivors of the October 3 disaster tried to catch a ferry to the Sicilian city of Agrigento, where an official ceremony was held 200 km (125 miles) from the island, Italy’s southernmost point.
When an interior ministry official denied them permission to board the ferry, the protesters sat down in front of the tiny island’s town hall, blocking a main roads.
“One of us lost three kids and his wife. We asked to go and we want to go legally, but they wouldn’t let us,” one migrant told SkyTG24 television without giving his name. “We only want to bury those we lost at sea.”
After a fire on board, the overcrowded vessel carrying more than 500 migrants capsized a few a few hundred meters (yards) from the shore of Lampedusa, a target for thousands of migrants fleeing on rickety boats from North Africa.
At least 366 men, women and children, mostly Eritrean, drowned in one of the worst disasters in Europe’s long-running immigration crisis.
The Coast Guard says the death toll could be more than 400 with many bodies still unrecovered. Some 155 people survived.
Those victims recovered by divers were laid to rest earlier this month without funerals in cemeteries around Sicily because no one city had enough room, even though Prime Minister Enrico Letta had promised state rites.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, and the Eritrean ambassador to Italy, Zemede Tekle Woldetatios, were among the officials who took part in the ceremony held at a small port in Agrigento.
Lampedusa’s Mayor Giusi Nicolini did not attend the ceremony after criticizing the decision to hold it so far from the island, and the mayor of Agrigento, Marco Zambuto, called it a “farce”.
“This port has never seen an immigrant boat arrival,” Zambuto told RAI state TV. “The presence of a representative of the Eritrean government is a further blow to those who died.”
Eritrean men often flee forced military service, and those who reach Italy normally seek political asylum from a government the United Nations has accused of torture and summary executions and which is thought to hold up to 10,000 political prisoners.
“The presence of the Eritrean regime offends the dead and puts in danger the living,” read a banner held at the ceremony by Eritrean nationals living in Italy.
Reporting by Steve Scherer; editing by Barry Moody