The bodies of 18 migrants seeking new lives in Europe arrived in French port Sunday on a naval frigate that fished them from the Mediterranean Sea.
Brice Hortefeux, France's new minister of immigration, integration, national identity and co-development, in Toulon to meet the vessel, vowed to wage an "implacable fight against all those who profit" from illegal immigration.
Crew members on "La Motte Picquet" pulled the 12 men, two adolescent boys and four women from waters about 100 nautical miles (180 kilometers) off the coast of Malta on Friday.
The bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition, said Captain Emmanuel Dinh, spokesman for the Mediterranean Maritime Prefecture. He said it was likely the bodies had been in the water for three days before they were found.
DNA tests were to be carried out to identify the bodies should families want to recover them, Dinh said by telephone. The bodies are to be buried in a cemetery in the Toulon region, he added.
The bodies were found between Malta and Libya, but it was not clear where the victims had begun their journey.
Hortefeux, for whom combating illegal immigration to France is a priority, condemned those who trade in the lives of the desperate by selling them places on "uncertain vessels" that risk never reaching their destination.
Hortefeux said in a commentary published Friday in the conservative daily Le Figaro that France plans to expel 25,000 illegals by the end of this year - a goal set by newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy. The figure is up from 24,000 in 2006.
The European Union has been stepping up patrols off the coast of Africa to keep people from embarking on dangerous trips in overcrowded boats in search of a new life in Europe. Many thousands attempt the crossings each year, and hundreds die along the way.
One major thoroughfare for illegal immigrants seeking entry into Europe is on small, crowded boats between Africa and Spain's Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. More than 30,000 illegal voyagers were intercepted on that route last year, and 500 others died en route.
Rescuers found the pilot of one of the two Su-34 fighters that had collided in midair in the Far East on January 18