VALLETTA (Reuters) - Italy on Monday called on the European Union to press Libya to stem the gangs smuggling migrants from Africa on overcrowded boats and prevent shipwrecks like the one that killed hundreds last month.
More than 360 people drowned off the coast of Sicily on October 3. The mostly Eritrean migrants had sailed from Libya, where smugglers mistreated them and made them pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to be carried to Europe.
"There needs to be an EU initiative with Libya to try to manage differently patrols and border controls," Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said after meeting Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in Valletta.
Letta's comments come three days after Sicilian investigators arrested a man for kidnapping, extortion and rape of some of the Eritreans who survived last month's shipwreck.
The horror stories told to Italian prosecutors by the migrants confirmed the worst fears of humanitarian groups about conditions in increasingly unstable Libya.
Two years after the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi's regime, rival militias continue to battle for power and the prime minister was briefly taken hostage last month.
"We must send a strong message that we are dealing with human beings. This also means tackling criminal networks of people-smugglers," Muscat said.
Italy, Malta and Greece have borne much of the brunt of the EU's two-decade-long immigration crisis, and all have called for more EU-wide support.
In the absence of a coordinated EU response, Italy has deployed naval vessels, helicopters and unmanned drones to try to prevent further tragedies at sea. Letta said the mission had saved hundreds of lives in the past month and put pressure on smugglers, who he called "merchants of death".
Malta is preparing to send a military vessel to Libya to help patrol the coast and prevent boats carrying migrants from departing, Muscat said.
Letta said the EU's entire approach to the Mediterranean over the past two decades had been wrong, and that Italy would push for an overhaul in the 28-country bloc's policies in the region when it holds the rotating presidency next year.
"We need a new European policy toward Africa and the Middle East," Letta said.
Separately, the two leaders said Italy and Malta would probably reach an agreement on offshore oil and gas exploration early next year.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; editing by Andrew Roche)