49 bodies migrants suffocated Catania
A container carrying the bodies of 49 migrants is removed from Norwegian ship Siem Pilot at the Sicilian harbour of Catania Reuters

Italian police have arrested eight suspected people traffickers on murder charges following the deaths of 49 migrants who suffocated in the hold of a sinking ship earlier in August.

The men, from Morocco, Libya and Syria, are accused of forcing the victims to stay in the ship's hold, where they died after inhaling fuel fumes. Among them is 20-year-old Harboob Ayooub, reportedly the captain of the 13m vessel.

"Anyone who tried to get a bit of air was punched, kicked and hit with sticks or belts to keep them in," Catania prosecutor Michelangelo Patane told a press conference. "The migrants in the hold died for lack of breathable air and after inhaling exhaust fumes."

The overcrowded boat was carrying 362 people and the traffickers were desperate to keep those in the hold locked up to ensure the boat's stability.

When rescuers boarded the sinking vessel, they found migrants' bodies lying "in water, fuel, human excrement", according to Italian navy commander Massimo Tozzi. He said the survivors included three children and 45 women, some of whom "were crying for their husbands [and] their children who died in the crossing". Migrants who pay less are confined in the hold, where they risk drowning if the boat capsizes or by inhaling fuel fumes.

The deputy mayor of Catania, the Sicilian port city that received the bodies of the 49 migrants, has cancelled its annual firework show in order to mourn the victims of the Mediterranean crossing. A white balloon for each of the victims will be released instead.