More than 800 migrants rescued at sea head to Italy

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Two Italian ports faced an influx of hundreds of migrants on Saturday, as a charity ship sailed toward a Sicilian port with 236 people rescued in the Mediterranean from traffickers’ boats, while Italian coastguard and border police took 532 others to a tiny island.

The maritime rescue group SOS Mediterranee said a ship it operates, Ocean Viking, pulled the migrants to safety four days ago from two rubber dinghies.

Under instruction from Italian authorities, the Ocean Viking was sailing to Augusta, Sicily, with its passengers, who it said included 119 unaccompanied minors.

SOS Mediterranee said some told rescuers they were beaten by smugglers in Libya and forced to embark on the unseaworthy dinghies despite high waves.

On Italy’s southern island of Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than to the Italian mainland, mayor Salvatore Martello said migrants from four boats that needed rescue stepped ashore overnight.

They were taken to safety by Italian coastguard and customs police boats.

Migrants rest on board the Ocean Viking (Flavio Gasperini/SOS Mediterranee via AP)

Still in the central Mediterranean on Saturday was another charity boat, Sea-Watch 4, with 308 people on board who had been rescued in four separate operations from trafficker-launched vessels, Sea-Watch said in a statement.

The first rescue, of 44 people, took place on Thursday, it said.

Sea-Watch 4 has requested a port to disembark the migrants from both Italy and Malta.

“The fact that we, as a civil rescue ship, saved so many people from distress at sea in such a short time again demonstrates the fundamental rescue gap European states have created at the world’s most dangerous maritime border,” said Hannah Wallace Bowman, the head of mission for Sea-Watch 4.

Warmer weather in the spring often increases the number of vessels launched toward Europe by Libya-based migrant traffickers.

Last month, SOS Mediterranean personnel and a merchant ship spotted several bodies from a shipwrecked dinghy, believed to have been carrying 130 migrants.

People on the boat had appealed for help in the waters off Libya, but no coastguard vessels from Libya, Italy or Malta went to their aid, the group said. No survivors were found.

Humanitarian groups have been urging European Union nations to resume the deployment of military vessels on rescue patrols in the Mediterranean.

After hundreds of thousands of rescued migrants, many of them ineligible for asylum, were taken to Italy by ships from the coastguard, navy, border police and other nations, large-scale rescue operations in the sea north of Libya were ended.

Italy has been equipping and training the Libyan coastguard to rescue migrants in their search-and-rescue area and to discourage traffickers.

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