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By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italian police arrested five men on Tuesday on suspicion of murdering and throwing overboard dozens of migrants crossing from Libya. Another three were charged with smuggling the migrants.
Survivors told police a life-or-death fight broke out when those who were riding in the hold, suffocating from heat and lack of oxygen, desperately tried to find room on the packed deck.
To keep the migrants below the deck, the five men indiscriminately stabbed and assaulted an estimated 60 of their fellow migrants before throwing them overboard, according to police, and then threatening the others not to react or face the same end.
Twenty-nine bodies were later recovered from the hold of what had been a badly overcrowded fishing boat. Another passenger died en route to an Italian hospital, probably from carbon monoxide poisoning, the navy said this weekend.
The bodies of the migrants said to be thrown overboard have not been recovered.
Some 561 migrants on the boat were rescued and brought to the Sicilian city of Messina on Sunday. According to some of the migrants, they paid people smugglers between $1,000-$2,000 for a place on deck, and between $200-$500 for one in the hold.
The excessive heat and fumes from the motor drove those in the hold to try to get out. When they were pushed back and the ladder to the deck was removed and the portal closed, the migrants in the hold mutinied, police said.
"In a matter of minutes the heat became unbearable and the air was unbreathable due to the fumes from the motor," a police statement said. "Desperation drove the prisoners to force open the door and climb onto deck where the tragedy occurred."
According to the testimony of "numerous" migrants, the five men - two Moroccans, a Saudi Arabian, a Syrian and a Palestinian - "randomly" assaulted dozens with knives and their fists, throwing overboard their victims as friends and relatives watched, police said.
Police said the accused would be assigned lawyers, but they did not yet have any statements from them. Three other men who were on the vessel have been charged for people smuggling.
Calmer summer seas have led to a surge in people trying to reach Italy from North Africa. Italy has picked up more than 82,000 migrants so far this year in its search-and-rescue mission, called "Mare Nostrum" or "Our Sea", about 20,000 more than were picked up during the whole of 2013.
The number of dead is also rising. At the start of July, the UN refugee agency estimated 500 migrants had died in the Mediterranean in the past six months, compared with 700 during all of last year. Bodies have been recovered almost daily this month.
Italy is struggling to keep up with the increase in migrant boats this year and has asked the European Union for more help in rescuing and housing the migrants.
Italy - along with Spain, Greece and Malta - have been left mostly on their own to manage the growing number of migrants, partly because increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in countries like Britain and France makes it unpopular to help out.
Over the past year, most of the migrants have been refugees fleeing Syria's civil war and Eritrea's harsh military service, according to the Interior Ministry.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Larry King)