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Rescue ship brings 600 migrants to Italy in biggest recent influx

Some 600 migrants, including many children, have arrived in Sicily after being rescued at sea in the past days. The new influx highlights problems with a controversial deal between Italy and Libya on stopping migrants.

Some 600 migrants were transported by ship to the Sicilian capital of Palermo on Friday after being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea in seven operations over 36 hours.

The ship, Aquarius, operated by the German group SOS Mediterranee, was carrying many children and families from Syria, as well as people from sub-Saharan Africa.

The arrival marks one of the biggest influxes since Italy struck a deal with Libyan authorities to reduce migrant smuggling, drawing vehement criticism from aid agencies, who say that the human rights situation in Libya is heavily compromised.

Many women on board the Aquarius reported having experienced sexual abuse and violence in Libya before taking a boat for Europe, SOS Mediterranee said.

Libyan instability

SOS Mediterranee President Valeria Calandra told Italian news broadcaster Sky TG24 that the current renewed instability in Libya would likely result in more migrants wanting to escape the largely lawless North African country.

"It was very improbable that from today to tomorrow you can stop everyone," she said. "I think this rescue is the first of many others that will arrive."

Migrants sitting in rubber dinghy (picture alliance/dpa/L.Klimkeit)

The migrants were rescued from makeshift vessels

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said fierce fighting around the Libyan city of Sabratha, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of the capital, Tripoli, had displaced more than 10,000 refugees and migrants, who remain "in need of urgent assistance."

The UNHCR said many people had been found without clothing or shoes, had severe injuries or were traumatized and in need of psychological support.

"Overall, our team on the ground paint a very grim picture," UNHCR said.

The fighting has also destabilized militias that had pledged under the deal to help reduce the flow of migrant smuggling across the Mediterranean.

Although the number of migrants arriving in Italy from Libya has increased slightly in the past few months, it is still far below that seen last year. So far this month, there have been 2,800 arrivals, compared with 12,400 in the same period in 2016.

Watch video 02:33

Hauke Mack, Search and Rescue Coordinator, SOS Mediterranee on humanitarian effort in the Mediterranean

tj/sms (dpa, AP)

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