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Jun 30, 9:03 AM EDT

Italy lowers toll from 2015 migrant wreck after ship raised


ROME (AP) -- Italian authorities on Thursday significantly lowered the estimated number of migrants who died in a 2015 shipwreck that spurred Europe to beef up Mediterranean rescue efforts, suggesting the final death toll could be around 500 rather than 800.

Survivors of the April 18, 2015, wreck had told investigators that the fishing boat was carrying from 700 to 800 people, most of them trapped in the hull. Only 28 survived.

But after the ship was raised from the seafloor this week and authorities got a look at its dimensions, they lowered the estimated number of passengers and dead.

Divers recovered 169 bodies from the seabed and discovered another 10-11 once the resurfacing operation got under way.

Navy Rear Adm. Pietro Covino said there were likely "no fewer than 300" bodies left in the hull. Combined with the 180 bodies already found, the final toll could be around 500.

Covino stressed that forensic investigators hadn't had a chance yet to enter the hull to count the bodies or start the identifying process, something that is planned for the next several days.

As that work begins, rescues continue: The coast guard said Thursday it had rescued 223 people in two operations and found the bodies of 10 women in a partially submerged dinghy off Libya's coast.

The presumed deaths of so many migrants in a single 2015 shipwreck sparked renewed outrage and soul-searching in European capitals, which agreed to send in EU naval reinforcements to cast a wider safety net to try to rescue the waves of migrants leaving Libya on smugglers' boats.

Most of the boats that sink are never recovered, and the dead are never retrieved or identified. But Italy pledged to recover the wreck and spent 9.5 million euros to raise it to the surface in hopes of identifying the dead and creating a data bank of information for families to contribute identifying information.

The operation involved a complicated pulley system fixed to a support frame that attached to the shipwreck some 370 meters (1,214 feet) down. Strong currents and poor weather complicated the efforts, with the final resurfacing operation alone taking 20 hours, officials said.

Discrepancies over death tolls are not unusual: Humanitarian organizations and investigating authorities typically rely on survivors' accounts to piece together how many people may have been killed during a capsizing, relying on overlapping accounts to try to establish a level of veracity. But given the trauma of the survivors, the lack of ship manifests and overall chaos of the smuggling operations, the estimates often vary.

Even when there are reliable estimates, they in no way paint the full picture of migrant deaths since there are some ships that sink without a trace.

The U.N. refugee agency estimates that from April 19, 2015, to today, some 4,937 people have perished making the sea crossing to Europe.

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