Italian police in the Sicilian capital Palermo said they have arrested 15 African men suspected of throwing 12 Christians from a migrant boat into the Mediterranean on Thursday.
The police said on Friday in Palermo (Italy) that 41 more deaths were reported in a separate incident.
Police said they had arrested men from Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal, after survivors reported they had thrown 12 people from Nigeria and Ghana to their deaths and threatened other Christians.
Police said the men were arrested on charges of multiple homicides motivated by religious hatred.
“The motive for the resentment was traced to their faiths,” police said.
“Twelve people are said to have drowned in the waters of the Mediterranean, all of them Nigerian and Ghanaian,” they added.
They said the murder suspects were among almost 100 migrants brought to Palermo on Wednesday.
They said the arrests were made on the basis of testimony from about 10 survivors, who said they had left Libya in a rubber boat on Tuesday.
Police said the survivors’ account underscores the rising chaos in the Mediterranean, which thousands of migrants many fleeing war and deprivation in Africa, try to cross in rickety boats in the hope of a better life in Europe.
Police said more than 20,000 migrants have reached the Italian coast this year, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates, fewer than arrived in the first four months of last year, but the number of deaths has risen almost nine-fold.
“Almost 450 people are now thought to have died this week after rescued migrants brought to the Sicilian port of Trapani on Thursday said 41 others travelling with them had drowned’’, they said.
“Survivors confide in us that more than 400 died earlier this week when passengers crowded to one side of their boat, causing it to capsize,” they added.
Police said investigations revealed that traffickers take advantage of a breakdown of order in Libya to charge $1,000 from every migrant to whom they give a passage.
“Some also turn violent, threatening coast guards with machine guns to avoid having their boats confiscated,” they said.