Italy, Malta rescue stricken migrants in Mediterranean

VALLETTA, (AFP):  The Italian navy rescued 100 migrants stranded in the Mediterranean on Thursday, as 178 others were taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa, and Malta, officials said.

Meanwhile, 149 migrants from East Africa, including 65 minors and 13 babies under one, were airlifted from Libya to Rome by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Trapped by renewed fighting in conflict-struck Tripoli, many were suffering from malnutrition or needed medical attention.

The Italian navy said the lives of the 100 people it rescued had been in imminent danger after their boat’s engine failed in worsening weather. Only a few of them had lifejackets.

The migrants, who sent an SOS signal to Alarm Phone, a volunteer-run Mediterranean rescue hotline, had said that a five-year-old girl on board had perished, but the navy said no one had died.

Italy’s far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini said the migrants would be taken to the northern port of Genoa.

Alarm Phone, which is operated by German association Watch the Med, said the Italian vessel could have rescued the stricken migrants “nearly a day ago”.

The Maltese navy said earlier that it had rescued 75 migrants found clinging to a tuna pen while trying to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

– ‘Exhausted’ –

The UN refugee agency said it spoke to those rescued when they arrived in Malta “exhausted, hungry, and extremely relieved to be on land after three days at sea”.

Malta has appealed to the EU for help in dealing with the flow of migrants, which its much larger neighbour Italy has begun to turn away.

The island of 450,000 people is a common destination for migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa, and a hardline stance from Italy has increased pressure on it.

The UNHCR said the new arrivals brought the number of people disembarked since the start of the year on Malta to 673, compared to four in the same period last year.

According to the Italian interior ministry, some 1,561 migrants have landed in Italy so far this year, compared to 13,430 in the same time frame in 2018.

The majority of military vessels that in recent years patrolled off Libya have since pulled back, and the charity rescue vessels that helped save those attempting the perilous crossing have been hit by judicial or administrative stops.

Several hundred migrants still sail each week from Libya, though most are intercepted by the Libyan coast guard and returned.

The German rescue charity Sea-Watch on Thursday released images shot on May 23 by its Moonbird reconnaissance aircraft showing migrants falling off a deflating dinghy, with at least one drowning.

Sea-Watch says an Italian military ship was about 30 nautical miles away at the time, but merely sent a helicopter to monitor the situation until a Libyan launch arrived to pluck the survivors from the water.

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