Swedish ship Poseidon rescued 130 people from a rubber dinghy and another 442 from a wooden boat found drifting off the Libyan coast on Thursday. Fifty-two people were found dead in the hold of the wooden boat.
The ship reached the port of Palermo at 8.30pm on Thursday. Survivors were taken ashore and transported to a refugee reception centre on Sicily.
The reported number of deaths has varied – with initial estimates putting the figure at 40 – and the Swedish coastguard said that difficult conditions had made it hard to get an accurate number.
“What is left at Poseidon is the ultimate sign of the tragedy: the refrigeration container with the 52 dead,” coastguard spokesperson Mattias Lindholm, travelling with the Poseidon, told the TT news agency late on Thursday.
The bodies were found in the boat's machine room.
“They were more or less locked up in there. The (ventilation) holes were very small and there was hardly any air coming in. It was hot, sweaty and difficult to breathe. They probably suffocated,” said Lindholm.
“The crew is very focused, they had a task to solve, but I can tell that they are affected by the tragedy that was taken on board the Swedish ship,” he added.
Police and coastguard officers said late on Thursday that they had identified suspected human smugglers on board one of the boats and would be passing the information on to Italian colleagues.
“We have information to pass on to Italian police concerning a number of individuals on board,” said Lindholm.
Officials wait to help survivors disembark the Poseidon. Photo: Kustbevakningen
Italian media said late on Thursday that a refrigerated lorry was at the dock at Palermo to take away the bodies for examination by forensic experts.
Palermo's prosecutor opened a murder inquiry similar to that launched by Catania earlier this month after the discovery of 49 bodies in the hold of another packed fishing boat.
Shortly after the bodies were brought ashore, Libya's coastguard announced that another boat, carrying around 200 migrants, had capsized off the country's coast. At least 10 people drowned in that incident. The search for survivors was ongoing.
The Swedish vessel was in the area as part of the EU border agency Frontex's search and rescue operation known as Triton. It is expected to be sailing home on Monday as its role in the mission comes to an end.