About 700 migrants have been rescued off the coast of Libya after several interventions coordinated by the Italian coast guard. Earlier this week, more than 300 people died in a similar attempt to reach Europe.
The migrants were spotted on seven different rubber dinghies floating across the Mediterranean Sea. Three were intercepted directly by the Italian coast guard and three more by a Maltese cargo ship that was directed to the vessels by Italian authorities on Friday. Another cargo ship was sent to rescue the migrants from a seventh boat.
Earlier this week, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said at least 330 people were feared dead following the shipwreck of four rubber dinghies in the Mediterranean Sea. Many of the victims were from Senegal, Gambia, Mali and the Ivory Coast.
The tragedy triggered calls for Italy to resume its extensive search-and-rescue operation off its southern shores, known as Mare Nostrum. That navy operation was suspended in November 2014 due to funding concerns and replaced by a more limited EU-mission called Triton, which covers a smaller area, has fewer ships and is directly tasked with rescuing migrants but with patrolling EU borders.
"There can be no doubt left after this week's events that Europe's operation Triton is a woefully inadequate replacement for Italy's Mare Nostrum," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement. If Europe does not implement a wider operation "it is inevitable that many more people will die trying to reach safety in Europe", he added.
Large numbers of migrants from Africa and the Middle East who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean arrive in Italy. In 2014, there were 170,100 new arrivals - compared to about 43,000 in 2013. In January, another 3,500 embarked on the perilous journey, in spite of the cold and stormy weather. Most of them set off from Libya, where the political chaos creates conditions ripe for human traffickers to smuggle people out of the country.
das/sms (dpa, AFP)