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Italian prosecutors probe response to migrant tragedy

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) - Italian prosecutors are looking into the way emergency services responded to last weekend's migrant boat disaster in which dozens of people were killed after accusations that authorities were slow to react, a police source said on Thursday.

Prosecutors from the Calabrian town of Crotone have asked the Guardia di Finanza police for documents on their actions before the boat carrying 150-200 migrants broke up on rocks just a few metres from the shore last Sunday. The same request has been made to the Coast Guard, Italian media reported.

There was no immediate comment from the Coast Guard or the prosecutors.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella visited survivors in a local hospital on Thursday, handing out toys to children. He also went to the sports hall where victims' coffins are laid out, bowing his head as he paid his respects.

Local authorities said another body was recovered on Thursday, taking the death toll to 68. Fifty-four of the victims have now been identified - 48 Afghans, three Pakistanis, a Syrian, a Tunisian and a Palestinian.

One of the victims from Pakistan was former national hockey player Shahida Raza.

QUESTIONS RAISED

The tragedy has intensified a debate on migration in Europe and Italy, where the recently elected right-wing government's tough new laws for migrant rescue charities have drawn criticism from the United Nations and others.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has called on fellow European leaders to do more to halt illegal immigration and prevent further tragedies at sea.

There are also questions about the emergency response.

The boat, which had set sail from Turkey, was first spotted late on Saturday about 74 km from the coast of Calabria by a plane operated by Frontex, the European Union's border agency.

Frontex said the boat was sailing without signs of distress but it alerted the Italian authorities as its thermal cameras indicated there could be a number of people below deck.

The Guardia di Finanza, which polices the coastline, said it sent out two patrol boats, but they gave up searching for the migrants and returned to port due to weather conditions.

Media have questioned why the Coast Guard, whose vessels are better equipped to face rough seas, was not deployed until it received an emergency call the next morning.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante in Rome; Writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Matthew Lewis)