ROME: Italy’s coastguard and navy rescued more than 1,200 migrants in the Mediterranean on Saturday after responding to multiple distress calls from 18 overcrowded vessels carrying an estimated total of 2,000-3,000 people.
Two navy patrol ships, the Cigala Fulgosi and the Vega, picked up respective totals of 507 and 432 migrants from two boats in danger of sinking just off Libya while coastguard vessels had safely boarded just under 300 people from three different inflatable dinghies.
Operations to rescue those stranded on the other drifting vessels were continuing in what was one of the largest single-day rescue missions seen since the numbers of people making the risky crossing to Europe from conflict-torn Libya exploded last year.
Some 170,000 migrants from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia landed at Italy’s southern ports in 2014 after being rescued in the Mediterranean, while the total for 2015 has already topped 104,000.
A further 135,000-plus have landed in Greece since January and more than 2,300 people have died at sea while trying to make it to Europe with the help of traffickers.
Police in Palermo, on the Italian island of Sicily, announced Saturday that they had arrested six Egyptian nationals on suspicion of people smuggling following the rescue of a stricken boat on August 19.
Testimony from the 432 migrants on board suggest the vessel had been packed with more than ten times the number of people it was designed for, with many of the passengers, including a number of women and children, locked below decks.