Prosecutors blamed the Tunisian captain of a fishing boat for causing the deaths of hundreds of migrants when his vessel capsized in the Mediterranean at the weekend.
Prosecutors said yesterday that Mohammed Ali Malek, 27, arrested under suspicion of multiple homicide, had steered his severely overloaded boat into a collision with a merchant ship that was coming to its rescue.
So few migrants survived because most of those on board, including women and children, had been locked in the hold and lower decks of the three-deck fishing boat, said Catania chief prosecutor Giovanni Salvi.
The ship’s captain has been arrested also on suspicion of people-smuggling.
Only 28 survivors have been taken to Italy from the hundreds of mainly African and Bangladeshi migrants on board.
Police have quoted the survivors giving death tolls that range from 400 to 950 in what appears to have been the worst disaster ever involving migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Because so many were locked below decks it had been impossible so far to reach the bodies and verify the toll, Salvi said.
According to the prosecutors, the fishing boat was so heavily overloaded that it could not be manoeuvred properly. As about 100 people on deck rushed to one side, the boat capsized and sank.
The captain and his Syrian first mate are also suspected of causing a shipwreck.
Under Italian law prosecutors outline the charges they believe a defendant should face before he or she is formally charged.
Both men are in police custody while investigations continue.
The disaster happened after weeks of a dramatic rise in deaths among migrants packed into rickety vessels to cross the Mediterranean. Nearly 1800 have drowned so far this year, compared with fewer than 100 deaths by the end of April last year, a period when a similar number attempted the crossing.
That has put new pressure for action on European leaders who restricted funding for naval operations on the argument that rescuing migrants lured more to cross. The policy, still backed by some EU countries, appears to have made the voyage far deadlier without reducing the numbers attempting it.
The EU has proposed doubling the size of its small naval mission in the area, which replaced a far larger Italian operation cancelled last year. It has summoned leaders of its countries to an emergency summit tomorrow.
Lawlessness in Libya, where most of the migrant boats originate, has made it difficult to prevent traffickers from packing thousands of people fleeing poverty or war into unsafe fishing boats and rubber dinghies.