May 4, 2017 / 6:40 PM / 3 months ago

Libya-based smugglers kill man for baseball hat, rescued migrants say

ABOARD THE PHOENIX (Reuters) - Rescuers picked up 560 migrants from unsafe boats off the coast of Libya on Thursday, Italy's Coast Guard said, including the body of a young man who the migrants said had been shot by smugglers on the beach for his baseball cap.

Italian Navy and Coast Guard boats participated in the rescues together with two humanitarian vessels, a spokesman said. The migrants were travelling on board two large rubber boats and five small wooden ones, he added.

The Phoenix, a rescue ship operated by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), took 422 on board, plus the body of the allegedly murdered young Gambian.

"According to eyewitnesses, the deceased teenager was killed by human traffickers because they wanted his baseball hat. What cruelty," MOAS co-founder Chris Catrambone said. "The medical team onboard the Phoenix have confirmed that the deceased teenager died from gunshot wound," he added.

MOAS doctors are also caring for another teenage boy who has a gunshot wound to the stomach, but is stable. German non-governmental organisation (NGO) Jugend Rettet also helped with the rescues.

Child migrants wait to be brought onto the Malta-based NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) ship Phoenix during a rescue operation in the central Mediterranean, in international waters off the Libyan coastal town of Sabratha, May 4, 2017.Darrin Zammit Lupi

Separately, Doctors Without Borders said its rescue ship Prudence would arrive in the Sicilian port of Catania early on Friday with the corpses of six migrants, including five women, who it had picked up in the Mediterranean in recent days.

Slideshow (5 Images)

There had been a pause of boat departures from Libya, where smugglers operate with impunity, since Easter, because of bad weather and sea conditions. But boat migrant arrivals in Italy are still up 30 percent so far this year from 2016, when a record 181,000 arrived.

Humanitarian rescue ships have come in for criticism in Italy in recent months, with Catania chief prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro opening a fact-finding investigation into possible ties between NGOs and people-smugglers.

The NGOs have strongly denied the accusations, including representatives from MOAS who testified in Italy's parliament earlier on Thursday. They say their only mission is to save lives.

Zuccaro has yet to present any evidence of illicit activities and has not opened a criminal investigation.

Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Gavin Jones and Mark Potter

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