Italy's Coast Guard helped save 144 migrants Monday from a capsized boat in the waters off Libya and spotted nine bodies. It was the most dramatic of numerous rescue operations that brought thousands to safety in recent days, as good weather has encouraged the desperate to set out on smugglers' vessels.
The overturned boat was spotted 80 miles north of Libya, Coast Guard Cmdr. Filippo Marini told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. Rescuers were not yet able to determine from survivors whether some other migrants might be missing, he said. Nationalities of the migrants were not immediately made known.
An air-and-sea search was in progress near the capsizing boat.
Marini said that many of the rescue operations were outside the area of Operation Triton, the European Union patrol mission for surveillance and eventual assistance for the migrants. Even outside that zone, other vessels, including merchant ships, often come to the rescue.
Good weather is playing a role in the current surge in sea voyages. Mild temperatures and skies encourage migrant crossings, because they provide a greater chance of survival on the rickety fishing boats or rubberized dinghies that set sail from Libyan shores. In a three-day period starting Friday, 5,629 migrants were rescued, the Coast Guard said.
Among those brought to Italian shores on Saturday and Sunday were 136 children, 99 of them unaccompanied, said Save the Children Italia, a non-governmental organization. Many of the migrants who arrived those days are from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Gambia, Mali and Ivory Coast, the group said.
Rescued migrants are usually brought to Sicily. But with so many arriving in a spate of days, the migrants were also being brought to shelters in Calabria and Puglia, two regions in the south of the Italian mainland.
Those seeking asylum or refugee status often have to wait months or years while their cases are processed. Those uneligible for such status are ordered expelled unless they can prove they have families or jobs awaiting them.
Smugglers often jump aboard speed boats as the vessels near the Italian coast. Left to fend for themselves, the migrants send out a distress signal, mobilizing the rescue operation.
"All of the calls for help came to the coast guard in Rome via satellite calls," from the boats in distress, said Marini. The Coast Guard's Rome headquarters has been co-ordinating the rescue operations.
"Even as we speak there are 14 rescue operations ongoing," the Coast Guard official said.
Italy's navy and frontier police boats joined the coast guard vessels in the rescue missions. Merchant vessels also pitched in, including the Italian cargo ship Bottiglieri, he said. An Operation Triton vessel was also involved in rescue operations, he said.
The Italian government has pressed the European Union to do more to patrol and rescue in the southern Mediterranean, especially since most of the migrants and asylum-seekers want to go to other EU countries where relatives or jobs await them.
Last year, 170,000 migrants arrived on Italian shores, thanks to rescue operations.