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Italian and Maltese rescue vessels have saved more than 2,000 migrants off the Libyan coast. Italy has been calling for more international help to rescue asylum seekers making the perilous Mediterranean journey.
The migrants were rescued off the Italian island of Lampedusa on Sunday by a host of Italy's and Malta's emergency services, including dozens of boats, navy ships and customs police boats.
Despite bad weather conditions, the vessels carrying the migrants had left Libya to make the treacherous journey, which has been described by the UN as one of the most dangerous in the world.
During the rescue operation, one motorboat belonging to the Italian Coastguard came under threat after four Kalashnikov-wielding smugglers approached the rescue team by speedboat from the Libyan coast. According to the Italian transport ministry, the armed men then forced the coast guards to return an empty migrant boat.
Call for support
The huge rescue mission on Sunday came just hours after Italy closed its embassy in Libya and demanded a UN mission to calm the worsening conflict there.
Italy has long called for more help from the EU to deal with migrants who travel to Italy in a bid to find a better life in Europe.
"The problems cannot all be left to us because we are the first, the closest, the people who pick up the boats," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told RAI TV in an interview on Saturday.
Sunday's rescue mission came just days after more than 300 migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea when their overcrowded rubber dinghies collapsed and sank in stormy weather.
The victims were predominantly migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who had embarked on the perilous journey from a beach near Tripoli.
Last year alone, more than 3,500 people lost their lives whilst attempting to make the sea crossing from North Africa to Italy.
ksb/kms (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)