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Latest migrant deaths fuel calls for EU action

By James Mackenzie

ROME (Reuters) - Italy and Malta pressed European partners on Saturday to do more to stop a migrant crisis which the Maltese prime minister said was turning the Mediterranean into a "cemetery" after another boat sank off Sicily, killing dozens more people.

Italian and Maltese navy ships recovered 34 bodies and rescued 206 migrants after their boat sank about 60 nautical miles south of Sicily on Friday and rescued more than 200 others in separate incidents on Saturday.

Friday's disaster came just over a week after hundreds of Eritreans and Somalis drowned when a boat sank less than a kilometer from Lampedusa, a tiny island between Sicily and Tunisia which has become the main entry point into Europe for migrant boats.

Arrivals of migrants from North Africa have grown steadily over the past two decades, with many making the journey in summer when the Mediterranean is calmer.

This year the crisis has been exacerbated by instability in Egypt, the civil war in Syria and chaos in Libya, the point of departure for many of the boats.

"I don't know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done," Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in an interview with the BBC. He said he would join Italy in pressing for action at the next European Council.

"The fact is that as things stand, we are just building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea," he said. "Until now we have encountered statements, words but little more than that."

As he spoke, Italian patrol boats were rescuing 235 more people, including children, from more migrant boats in distress some 70 nautical miles south of Lampedusa. Search crews on the island itself recovered 19 more bodies from the boat which sank last week, bringing the death toll to at least 358.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has already pressed for the crisis to be included on the European Council agenda at its October 24-25 meeting, although Europe has long struggled to come up with a comprehensive response to the crisis.

"REAL EMERGENCY"

"We cannot continue like this," Letta told French radio station Europe 1 in an interview on Saturday. "We're in a situation where what's happening in North Africa, Eritrea, Somalia, Syria presents us with a real emergency."

According to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, around 32,000 migrants have arrived in southern Italy and Malta so far this year, about two thirds of whom have filed asylum requests.

Italy, deep in recession and pressed by EU budget rules to rein in public spending, has seen its reception facilities on Lampedusa and other parts of Sicily strained to breaking point and has called repeatedly for more help to confront a crisis it says is a European emergency.

"There are too many arrivals and we are not in a condition to manage the disaster of the past few weeks," Letta said.

He said a common European policy was needed to handle the "explosion" in Libya, where the government has struggled to impose its authority on violent armed groups or stop the gangs that organize the clandestine voyages.

The hundreds of deaths have also set off a fierce political debate in Italy over tough rules intended to combat clandestine immigration which make it an offence to offer assistance to illegal migrant boats.

European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malstrom has called this week for Europe's frontier agency Frontex to be strengthened to be able to deploy search and rescue operations in a zone stretching from Cyprus to Spain.

She repeated the call after Friday's disaster: "In the aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedy we heard solidarity expressions from all EU countries, but these will remain only empty words if they are not followed by concrete actions."

(Additional reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris; editing by Louise Ireland and Tom Pfeiffer)

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