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48 hours, 5,500 migrants rescued: Italy's daring rescue ops

May 04, 2015 12:02 IST

The Italian coastguard coordinated one of its largest rescue operations to date, saving 5,500 people on Saturday and Sunday as smugglers took advantage of calm seas to send migrants across the Mediterranean.

A migrant holds a paper ship with the writing 'SOS Europe' to highlight the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean. Photograph: Rafael Marchante/Reuters

A total of 3,427 migrants were rescued from seven wooden boats and nine rubber dinghies off the coast of Libya on Saturday, in 16 separate operations. Some of the overcrowded boats would usually have a capacity of less than 20 passengers, a coastguard source said.

Rescue operations on Sunday saw a further 2,100 people saved by the Italian navy and other ships operating in the Mediterranean. 

In 2014, more than 170,000 people illegally crossed the Mediterranean and more than 3,200 died in the attempt. Ten times more people have reportedly died since January this year compared to the same period last year.

Migrants stand on board Italian Navy ship Chimera before disembarking in the southern harbour of Salerno, Italy. Photograph: Ciro De Luca/Reuters

Taking advantage of calm seas due to the change of seasons in the Mediterranean and the growing lawlessness and anarchy in Libya -- the last point on one of the main transit routes to Europe – smugglers are sending more migrants in dangerously overcrowded boats. The shaky boats often capsize and lose power in the middle of the perilous journey.

Last month, as many as 700 people died after a boat carrying migrants capsized in the Mediterranean. The incident took place just outside of Libyan territorial waters near the Italian island of Lampedusa. Philip Hammond, the UK’s foreign secretary, said after the incident that authorities need to identify and tackle human traffickers to deal with the mounting deaths of migrants attempting to make their way into Europe.

Migrants look on before arriving at the Sicilian harbor of Catania. An Italian coast guard vessel carrying 84 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya arrived at the Sicilian port of Catania on Friday morning. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Italy co-ordinated the weekend’s rescue efforts, with 10 Italian vessels, four private boats and a French ship acting on behalf of the European border control agency.

While the European Union has stepped up its sea mission, Italy remains the country that hosts most of the arrivals in immigration centres.

Meanwhile a Libyan news agency reported that authorities detained 500 migrants in five boats off Tripoli. Another 480 migrants, some from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, were caught in the central town of Jufra as they prepared for their crossing. Another 170 were detained nearby.