February 15, 2015 / 1:12 PM / 3 years ago

Italian coast guard starts rescuing at least 1,000 boat migrants

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s coast guard went to the rescue of at least 1,000 migrants in difficulty in the sea between Europe and North Africa on Sunday, the third operation of its kind in as many days.

Migrants arrive by boat at the Sicilian harbour of Pozzallo, February 15, 2015. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

The coast guard said it had plucked more than 130 people from two rubber boats about 180 km (110 miles) south of the island of Lampedusa so far, and was working to save eight more vessels.

“We are certainly at more than 1,000 migrants” involved in Sunday’s rescue operation, a spokesman for the coast guard in Rome told Reuters.

Better weather since last week has encouraged migrants to make the perilous journey from North Africa, where a breakdown of order in Libya has made it almost impossible to police the traffickers who pack people onto rickety boats.

More than 300 people died last week trying to make the crossing, which claimed 3,500 lives last year even before Italy closed its Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission in December.

The coast guard ship Fiorillo and several cutters were sent to the latest rescue, along with four merchant ships and two tug boats which were diverted to join the operation. One navy ship, two police patrol ships and a Maltese vessel had also been mobilized, the coast guard spokesman said.

Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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