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21 Illegal Albanian Migrants Die Trying to Sail to Italy

THE WORLD

Rough weather sinks a dinghy attempting the 3-hour trip across the Adriatic. Italian coast guard rescues 11 from the frigid water.

January 11, 2004|From Associated Press

TIRANA, Albania — An inflatable speedboat packed with Albanian migrants trying to sneak into Italy sank in rough weather in the Adriatic Sea, killing 21 people, officials said Saturday.

Eleven others were rescued by the Italian coast guard after the boat sank late Friday near Vlora, about 85 miles southwest of the capital, Tirana. High winds had whipped waves to 20 feet. Two people were listed in serious condition, police spokesman Floriani Serjani said. No one was believed to be missing.

Police arrested two of the survivors, who were believed to be migrant smugglers.

Gentian Kurtmetaj, a survivor in his 20s, said the passengers in the 43-foot-long boat had paid about $2,300 each for the journey across the Adriatic, which normally takes about three hours. The average monthly salary in Albania is $200.

"We were promised jobs in Brindisi [Italy]," he told reporters. "It was very cold, and the victims froze to death."

Most of the passengers were from the northern districts of Shkodra and Malesi-e-Madhe, among Albania's poorest regions. Three women and 18 men were among the dead, said Lt. Col. Antonio Passaro, a spokesman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Albania.

Fran Prenga, who lost his wife and younger brother, said he and his family decided to risk the journey after Italy refused to renew their visas so they could return to their agriculture jobs.

"That's why we decided to undertake this crazy trip," he said.

Albanian police monitoring the sea with radar Friday evening spotted the boat and called Italian and NATO authorities for help, believing that the inflatable craft could not withstand the rough weather.

In Rome, Ferdinando Lolli of the press office of the Italian Coast Guard general command said, "The dinghy was full of water, and all these people aboard and the bad weather caused this accident."

Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said the tragedy sparks "so much human pity for the victims and as much abhorrence for the organizers of the voyage."

Two high-ranking Albanian police officers who are related to one of the arrested survivors were suspended while authorities investigated whether they were involved.

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