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World Italy rescues nearly 1,000 migrants from boats in the Mediterranean

In this video grab released by the Italian Coast Guards (Guardia Costiera) on March 4, 2015 a coast guard throws life jackets to migrants, including women and children, during a rescue operation, yesterday, off the coast of Sicily as part of the Triton plan (Frontex).

AFP/Getty Images

In dramatic sea rescues north of Libya, a flotilla of ships saved more than 1,000 migrants and refugees, while 10 migrants perished in the southern Mediterranean, Italian officials said Wednesday.

Rescue vessels, including from Italy's coast guard and navy, and three cargo ships saved 941 people in seven separate operations that began Tuesday, Italy's coast guard said. On Wednesday, the coast guard and two cargo ships rescued 94 migrants whose motorized dinghy was in distress 40 miles (65 kms) north of Libya, the coast guard said.

Survivors were ferried to southern Italian ports. The migrants rescued Tuesday had been aboard five motorized dinghies and two larger vessels. One of the larger boats capsized, and 10 bodies were spotted or plucked from the sea.

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For months now, hundreds – sometimes thousands – of migrants fleeing conflicts or poverty have been reaching Italy practically weekly on smugglers' boats setting sail from Libya.

This year's pace has seen a sharp uptick from 2014's staggering count of 170,000 migrants and asylum-seekers rescued at sea by Italy's coast guard, navy and other vessels including cargo ships.

The Interior Ministry says 7,882 migrants arrived on Italian coasts in the first two months of this year, compared to 5,506 in that period in 2014.

The coast guard said the migrants saved in the latest rescues claimed to be Syrians, Palestinians, Libyans, Tunisians and people from sub-Saharan Africa.

More than 30 children were among those rescued. One of the 50 pregnant women aboard was urgently evacuated for medical treatment.

A tug deployed at offshore oil platforms raised one of the first alarms, and then joined in the rescue operations about 50 miles north of Libya, the coast guard said.

For years, Italy has been appealing to the European Union to help ships, aircraft or funding. It points out that most of those rescued intend to reach relatives or jobs in other European countries.

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This year, an EU patrol mission known as Triton replaced Italy's Mare Nostrum air and sea mission that had saved tens of thousands of lives. Triton patrols only EU national waters, while the Italians had carried out rescues off Libya's coast, where many of the unseaworthy and overcrowded vessels founder.

Italy says it won't turn its back on those in danger.

"Often the SOS call [arrives] when the migrants boats are outside the Italian rescue zone, 50 or 60 miles from the Libyan coast," Coast Guard commander Filippo Marini told The AP in an interview.

International law obliges Italy to alert the coastal country with jurisdiction, he said, but calling on Libyan authorities would yield little help because of the country's chaotic security situation.

"If there is no reaction or intervention for this country, we must rescue these people," Marini said.

The EU's smaller-scaled mission is fodder for right-wing Italian politicians, including Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe Northern League party.

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"Ten more dead and 900 clandestine migrants ready to disembark," Salvini said Wednesday. "In Rome and in Brussels, there are full pockets and hands stained with blood."

The migrants' traffickers are reportedly getting even more ruthless.

An Italian child protection advocate, Carlotta Bellini of Save the Children, said migrants have recently reported that armed traffickers demanded they jump in the boat to depart even if weather was bad.

Government lawmakers also demanded the EU do more. Khalid Chaouki, from Premier Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party, lamented "this unexplainable European indifference."

In Brussels, Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters: "Now more than ever we need a comprehensive and long-term strategy." He spoke after a commission orientation debate on the EU's new migration policy.

Italian officials have expressed concern that militants could mingle among migrants from Libya, where the Islamic State group has gained a foothold in that northern African country's chaos.

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