ROME, March 10 (Reuters) – The Italian coastguard launched multiple rescue operations on Friday to save hundreds of migrants packed aboard several boats off the toe of Italy, less than two weeks after at least 73 drowned in a shipwreck.
“More than 1,000 people are in danger,” the coastguard said in a statement.
The president of the southern Calabria region, Roberto Occhiuto, said a total of around 1,300 migrants were aboard boats which the European Union’s border force Frontex had warned could run into problems.
Three coastguard boats were trying to offload around 500 migrants packed on a vessel 70 miles (110 km) south of the Calabrian town of Crotone — close to the scene of the Feb. 26 disaster.
The coastguard said it had also dispatched a couple of boats to rescue about 800 migrants aboard two more vessels further out to sea. An Italian navy ship was also headed at full speed to the area to help out.
“The rescue operations … are particularly complex due to the large number of people on board the boats adrift,” the coastguard said.
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In a separate incident earlier on Friday, the coastguard picked up almost 500 migrants close to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, local media reported.
“In the last days, we have seen an increase in attempts to cross the Central Mediterranean,” Frontex told Reuters in a written statement.
“Only since yesterday, our planes and drones have detected 20 boats carrying hundreds of people heading towards the Italian shores. The weather conditions will be deteriorating in the upcoming hours.”
Italy’s migrant sea rescue capabilities have come under scrutiny following the Feb. 26 shipwreck off Calabria. The body of a young boy was recovered on Friday, bringing the death toll to 73, with many migrants still missing.
Police vessels had tried but failed to intercept their wooden boat due to adverse weather, and the coastguard, better equipped to face rough seas, was not immediately activated.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s rightist government responded on Thursday with tougher jail penalties for migrant smugglers and pledges to stop their illegal boat trips, while opening up legal migration channels.
The government approved a decree at the end of last year cracking down on charity rescue boats but its declared aim of curbing migrant crossings is having scant success.
More than 3,000 people have reached Italy since Wednesday, compared to around 1,300 for the whole of March last year.
As many as 1,869 migrants from 41 separate boats arrived on Lampedusa alone on Thursday, the ANSA news agency said, calling it an all-time record for landings on a single day.
writing by Crispian Balmer and Gavin Jones
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