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 / Updated  / Source: NBC News

PALERMO, Italy — Italian police arrested 15 African men suspected of throwing about a dozen Christians from a migrant boat in the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday, as the crisis off southern Italy intensified.

Forty-one more deaths were reported in a separate incident.

Police in the Sicilian capital Palermo said they had arrested the men — who were from Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal — after survivors reported they had thrown 12 people from Nigeria and Ghana to their deaths and threatened other Christians.

The 15 were arrested on charges of multiple homicide motivated by religious hatred.

"The motive for the resentment was traced to their faiths," police said. "Twelve people are said to have drowned in the waters of the Mediterranean, all of them Nigerian and Ghanaian."

The survivors' account underscores the rising chaos in the Mediterranean. Increasing thousands of migrants, many fleeing war and deprivation in Africa, have been trying to cross in rickety boats in the hope of a better life in Europe.

Around 20,000 migrants have reached the Italian coast this year, the International Organisation for Migration estimates, fewer than arrived in the first four months of last year. However, the number of deaths has risen almost nine-fold.

- Reuters