Valletta: Syrian refugees who survived after their boat capsized off Malta say they were fired on by warring trafficking gangs as they set out on their perilous journey from Libya, the UN refugee agency reported on Sunday.
Thirty-one people were killed and more than 200 people were rescued after the boat capsized on Friday, a week after a shipwreck off Italy left at least 359 dead, prompting Malta to warn the Mediterranean was turning into "a cemetery".
The boat, carrying up to 400 migrants, mostly Syrians, left the Libyan port of Zwara on Thursday, just 60 kilometres from the Tunisian border.
Citing testimonies from some of those who survived the 10-hour crossing, the UNHCR, spoke of "several injured passengers", saying that the shots were fired "perhaps by militiamen who shot to kill".
Molhake Al Roarsan, 22, interviewed in Valletta by the newspaper La Stampa, said that three people were injured after being shot in the arms and legs.
He said he thought the shootings were related to a dispute between different groups of traffickers.
"There was a furious fight, screaming on the radio and on the phone with someone who demanded that we return to land, but the captain did not stop," said the Syrian.
The newspaper Repubblica reported that the shots were fired by a Libyan patrol "which is probably part of another criminal gang".
News agency Ansa said witnesses spoke of two people being killed during the shootings.
"They were shooting in all directions, on board there was panic with people trying to protect each other," it quoted one of the survivors as saying.
Once they reached Malta, the Tunisian captain was arrested after being recognised by survivors, according to media reports.
Among those on the boat was Ashur, a Syrian, and his family who were fleeing the war.
When the vessel capsized he managed to save his two - year - old daughter but lost his son and wife who was pregnant with twins.
"I lost practically all I had. What I have left to live for is my daughter who I will not let go out of my arms," a grieving Ashur said.
The passengers — mostly Syrians but also Palestinians — had to pay $1,000 (740 euros) for the trip.
Some 180 migrants who were saved were on Sunday morning transported by Italian and Maltese officials to Porto Empedocle, on the island of Sicily.
Later on Sunday, authorities in Sicily were also expecting to receive the first 150 coffins of those who died in the tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 3. The majority will be buried on the island.
Following this latest disaster at sea, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat warned that "we are just building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea".
The twin tragedies have prompted the European Union to call for sea patrols to cope with the flood of migrants knocking on its doors.
Italy has appealed to EU states for help in managing the refugee crisis, which shows no sign of abating. Rome wants migration to be put on the agenda of summit talks taking place in
Brussels later in October.
According to UNHCR estimates, some 32,000 migrants have arrived in Malta and Italy this year.