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More than 2,100 people rescued at sea in two days

Waves of migrants plucked from boats in Channel of Sicily

19 March, 14:58
More than 2,100 people rescued at sea in two days (ANSA) - Rome, March 19 - More than 2,100 people were rescued in 48 hours from over a dozen boats carrying migrants across the Channel of Sicily by Italian Navy and Coast Guard vessels, authorities said Wednesday.

The rescue included help from three merchant navy ships, working with the Mare Nostrum task force established to try to prevent migrant deaths in waters off Italy.

The latest rescue on Tuesday of 13 boats packed with 1,532 men, women and children followed a similar operation on Monday night when another 596 migrants, including 103 women and 62 children were rescued from two ships in two separate operations south of Lampedusa.

The Mare Nostrum operation "has contributed in a definitive way to limit trafficking in human beings," Italian Defense Chief of Staff Luigi Binelli Mantelli said Tuesday.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has also called the operations "an example to follow also in other countries".

Before the latest rescues, the Mare Nostrum task force reported saving a total of 12,228 people and the capture of 46 alleged human traffickers.

"It is an important commitment from which I do not believe we can serenely exit, because the humanitarian aspect cannot be underestimated," said Binelli Mantelli.

"NATO has understood that Mare Nostrum makes a contribution to security and not just to border controls," Binelli Mantelli added.

"I hope that Europe also understands this," he said, adding that there are strong connections between human traffickers and terrorist organizations.

The air and naval operation Mare Nostrum (Latin for 'our sea', as the Mediterranean was called by ancient Romans) was established last autumn as a military and humanitarian operation aimed to strengthen surveillance and rescue forces at sea. It makes use of amphibious ships, unmanned drones and helicopters with infrared equipment in its search-and-rescue missions.

The operation was triggered in part by the deaths of around 400 people in two separate migrant-boat disasters in October near the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which is often the migrants' first port of call. Tens of thousands of migrants arrive in Italy from North Africa every year and many others die attempting the crossing in often rickety vessels. Boat arrivals in Italy more than tripled last year from the previous year, fuelled by the conflict in Syria and strife in the Horn of Africa.

Each year for the past 15, an average of 40,000 undocumented immigrants have disembarked on European shores and the mortality rate has increased, a report by the Florence-based European University Institute said in December.