ROME At least 13 people on a migrant boat arriving in eastern Sicily drowned, apparently after trying to get off their stranded vessel while it was just a few metres from the shore, Italian authorities said on Monday.
Television pictures showed the bodies, all of adult men, wrapped in white sheets lying on the beach.
Davide Roccasalva, a lifeguard at the Sampieri beach near Scicli in eastern Sicily, told the Corriere della Sera website that he had helped an offduty policemen pull some of the struggling people out of the surf.
"We went in the water, some of them were getting out on their own two feet but some of them had to get assistance and we helped some of those in the water," he said, adding that many were in serious distress.
"We managed to save two by cardiac massage but for many others there was nothing we could do," he said.
The mayor of Scicli, Franco Susini said tourists on the beach had raised the alarm but he said the migrants, most from Eritrea, appeared to have been mistreated during the voyage.
"The people in these boats are treated like animals," he told SkyTG24 television.
Police arrested two men, both suspected of being people smugglers.
The incident was the latest in a long series in which desperate migrants trying to reach southern Europe in overcrowded boats have drowned.
Pope Francis highlighted the plight of migrants to Sicily earlier this year when he visited Lampedusa, the tiny island off the southern coast which has been the main entry point to Europe for migrants from North Africa.
PROBLEM FOR EUROPE
Both Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Enrico Letta issued statements of condolence while Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, herself born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Europe had to take action.
"We are witnessing a human tragedy which affects all the countries of Europe," she Kyenge said in a statement. "We cannot underestimate this situation."
Thousands of migrants have arrived in packed boats in southern Italy during the summer sailing season this year with refugees from the civil war in Syria adding to the near daily arrivals of boats from North Africa.
According to a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees earlier this month, around 22,000 migrants had arrived in southern Italy by boat so far in 2013, including almost 6,000 Eritreans and 4,600 Syrians.
Most arrive in Lampedusa but thousands of Syrian migrants have also arrived in southeastern Sicily from Egypt.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)