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Rome (AFP) – Over 130 people drowned Thursday after a boat carrying up to 500 African asylum seekers caught fire and sank off Italian shores in one of the worst such disasters in the Mediterranean.

“There are 93 victims, including three children and two pregnant women,” said Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who flew to the remote island of Lampedusa near where the tragedy happened.

Rescue divers later said they had identified at least 40 more bodies in and around the sunken wreck at a depth of around 40 metres (130 feet), just a few hundred meters (yards) from the shore.

One woman initially thought dead and brought back to the port was revived by medical personnel on the dock.

There were fears that the final toll could rise further to 300 or more people since rescuers said that only 151 survivors had been plucked from the water more than 11 hours after the disaster.

“Seeing the bodies of the children was a tragedy. We have run out of coffins,” said Pietro Bartolo, a doctor. “In many years of work here, I have never seen anything like this,” he said.

Lampedusa is one of the main entry points into the European Union for asylum-seekers crossing from Africa or the eastern Mediterranean.

The U.N. estimates some 20,000 migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe since the late 1990s, crossing on rickety fishing boats or dinghies.

Survivors said they were from Eritrea and Somalia and had left from the Libyan port of Misrata.

“We received the first alert at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) when a boat reported people in the water,” a spokesman for the coast guard told AFP.

Antonio Candela, a local emergency medical worker, said: “The first assistance was provided by people on pleasure boats who heard the screams.”

The migrants told rescuers they set fire to a blanket on the boat to attract the attention of coast guards after their vessel began taking on water and passing fishing boats ignored them.

The fire spread quickly, sowing panic on board which caused the boat to flip over and sink, as desperate passengers jumped into the water.

Raffaele Colapinto, a local fisherman who was one the first on the scene, said: “We saw a sea of heads. We started taking them on board.

“It was hard because they were covered in gasoline and they were slippery. It took about half an hour to drag each one onto our boat,” he said.

Visibly shaken survivors in thermal blankets — many of them bare-chested — were seen stepping on the dock as an emergency worker broke down in tears in images shown on Italian television.

‘A European tragedy’

The bodies were being taken to a hangar at the local airport because there was no more room in the local morgue on the remote island, which has a population of around 6,000 people.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta called the incident “an immense tragedy” and the government has declared a national day of mourning on Friday.

Alfano called for more assistance from the European Union to deal with the sharp increase in refugee arrivals, calling it “a European tragedy”.

Some 25,000 people have landed on Italian shores so far this year — more than three times the number for the whole of 2012, although the figure for 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring revolts in North Africa was around 50,000.

In the last major disaster in June 2011, between 200 and 270 immigrants fleeing Libya are believed to have died off the coast of Tunisia.

Many of the arrivals have been on Lampedusa, which is closer to Tunisia than to Sicily. Most of them have been Eritreans, Somalis and Syrians.

The EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem called on EU countries to do more to take in refugees, which she said would help reduce the number of perilous Mediterranean crossings.

She also said that, Eurosur, a new European system to coordinate maritime search and rescue operations would be up and running by December.

Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July to plead for more attention to the plight of refugees, called the disaster “shameful”.

He added: “Let us join forces so these tragedies never happen again. Only decisive cooperation can help prevent them.”

Photo Via AFP

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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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