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Saturday, 16 June, 2001, 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK
Divers locate 'phantom shipwreck'
Hatch of sunken vessel - all pictures courtesy of La Repubblica
Was this the watery tomb of hundreds?
A search team has found what is thought to be the wreck of a ship which sank off the Italian coast five years ago with hundreds of illegal immigrants on board.

The wreck is said to be surrounded by skeletons.

An Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, undertook the search for what has been dubbed "the phantom shipwreck" in the face of long-standing official scepticism about the existence of the vessel.

Picture from wreck
Half-buried remains on the sea bed
About 280 people, mainly from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are believed to have drowned when the ship went down in waters off Sicily in December 1996.

Investigations by the Italian and Greek authorities at the time failed to find any trace of the alleged disaster.

Skeletons amid the wreckage

The newspaper said there were dozens of skeletons in and around the vessel.

Hole in wreckage
A collision sent the ship down
Survivors told police at the time that they had been forced to board the doomed ship from a larger vessel, the Iohan.

Many refused, but claimed the Iohan's captain had threatened them with a gun.

After the overloaded smaller boat got into difficulties, it turned back to the main ship and collided with it.

One image from the side of the sunken vessel shows a large hole, presumably caused by the impact with the larger ship.

Captain facing trial

The Lebanese captain of the Iohan and members of his crew went on trial in Sicily in May on suspicion of migrant-trafficking.

The trial has now been put on hold.

Sri Lankan victim's identity card
Fishermen found ID card
The search for the wreck began in earnest after Sicilian fishermen found the identity card of a young Sri Lankan Tamil in their nets.

The document was passed on and recognised by an uncle of the dead man living in Milan.

A diving team using a remotely operated mini-submarine robot eventually located the vessel 30 kilometres off Capo Passero, at the extreme southern tip of Sicily.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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