The EU's border-control agency has said that some 5,000 migrants have been plucked from the Mediterranean Sea over the past three days. The Frontex rescue mission Triton also recovered the bodies of 17 would-be migrants.
An Italian coast guard vessel brought the 17 corpses ashore at the port of Augusta on the southern island of Sicily on Sunday, after they were discovered on a rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean. Italian prosecutors have launched an investigation into how they died. The Italian vessel also arrived with more than 450 survivors on board.
Frontex said in a statement posted on its website that its operation Triton, which is meant to prevent loss of life in the Mediterranean, had rescued more than 5,000 people since Friday.
It said the rescue operations since then, migrants who left the coast of Libya in 25 boats had been picked up by 22 ships from Italy, Britain, Malt and Belgium, which were assisted by spotter planes from Iceland and Finland. It said that more than 4,200 migrants had been picked up in that effort on Friday alone.
It also said German, Irish and Danish vessels were involved in the weekend's operations.
"This is the biggest wave of migrants we have seen in 2015," Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri said.
Germany's armed forces said the Bundeswehr's frigate Hessen had picked up 880 people on Friday, including 118 women and 27 children. A video posted via the Bundeswehr's Twitter account showed part of the operation, with German sailors from the Hessen rushing out to a stricken dinghy on patrol boats.
They first tossed life jackets to some of the migrants, who were floating near the dinghy before helping some of them on board. German personnel can then be seen carrying a couple of small children onto the Hessen.
Frontex said all of those rescued over the past three days either had been or were being brought to Italian ports. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that including the 5,000 rescued on the weekend, more than 40,000 have reached Italy this year.
European Union countries agreed to step up their efforts to save lives last month after hundreds of people are believed to have drowned in one of the worst single incidents involving migrants trying to reach EU territory.
With conflicts raging on in Libya, Syria and Iraq, there is no indication that the flow of migrants is about to end anytime soon. Numbers tend to rise as the spring and summer bring warmer weather and calmer seas, making a departure more attractive.
pfd/bw (dpa, Reuters)