Italian navy picks up 730 migrants in overcrowded boats off Sicily

by Reuters
Wednesday, 2 April 2014 09:23 GMT

ROME, April 2 (Reuters) - The Italian navy rescued 730 people aboard two overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily, officials said on Wednesday, as the numbers of migrant boats crossing from North Africa surges in the mild spring weather.

The migrants, including 124 women and 29 children, were taken aboard the amphibious assault ship San Giorgio and another vessel late on Tuesday and early on Wednesday, a navy statement said. They were being taken to a port in Sicily.

Calm sea conditions saw more than 4,000 migrants rescued from the seas off Italy over four days late last month.

Italy is a major gateway into Europe for migrants who come by sea from North Africa. The number of arrivals tripled to more than 40,000 in 2013 from the previous year, fuelled by Syria's civil war and conflict in the Horn of Africa.

In October, at least 366 Eritreans drowned in a shipwreck near the shore of the Italian island of Lampedusa, about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. More than 200, mostly Syrians, died in another shipwreck a week later.

The shipwrecks prompted the government to put its navy on permanent mission in the waters between Sicily and North Africa. Italy has repeatedly asked the EU to take on a greater role in policing its seas because two-thirds of the migrants move on to other countries in the region after being rescued. (Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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