ROME (Reuters) - The remains of up to 675 victims have been recovered from a 2015 migrant shipwreck, Italy's navy said on Thursday, as it concluded an operation to retrieve corpses from one of the worst disasters in the Mediterranean.
The fishing boat capsized near the coast of Libya in April 2015. Survivors had originally told investigators that as many as 800 people had been crammed onto the boat.
Logistical difficulties meant the wreck was only hauled from the sea floor two weeks ago and towed to Sicily where emergency services finally gained access to the hull in which many of the refugees had been trapped.
The emergency services found the remains of 458 people inside the hull, navy commander Nicola De Felice told a news conference called to mark the end of the salvage operation.
Including those recovered from the nearby seabed, the confirmed death toll now stands at about 675. The number will remain inexact, partly because some victims are likely to have been lost at sea and also because many of the retrieved bodies were badly decomposed.
"We were talking about bodies, then we started talking about body bags because that's more precise. The number of bodies is uncertain," said fire department chief Giuseppe Romano.
"The most shocking thing was that the hold was packed with five people per square meter," said Romano, who led a team of 348 firemen to extract the victims from the hold, which prosecutors believed was locked at the time of the shipwreck.
The vessel overturned and sank apparently after people on the deck all rushed to one side to attract attention from a passing merchant ship.
A forensic team led by a Milan-based university professor is seeking to identify as many of the victims as possible and to build a database to help people find lost loved ones.
(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Gareth Jones)