Tunisia rescues 356 migrants off south-eastern coast

TUNIS (AFP) - Tunisia's navy on Wednesday rescued 356 migrants - including a two-month-old baby girl - off the country's south-eastern coast near Ben Guerdane, the Red Crescent said.

Red Crescent official Ammar Lamloum told AFP that the group of migrants, mainly Africans, had been trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa when they were rescued.

"They are now at the port in Ben Guerdane," he said.

The Tunisian and Italian authorities have been at the forefront of rescue efforts for a flood of mainly African migrants fleeing Libya and bound for Europe on unseaworthy boats that run into trouble.

Four of the rescued migrants including a pregnant woman were being treated in hospital, Lamloum said, adding that 38 women and seven children had been on the boat.

He said the group of migrants, which included sub-Saharan African, Syrians, Moroccans, Malians, Egyptians and Pakistanis, had left Libya aboard the makeshift vessel but it had broken down off the Tunisian coast.

"We don't for the moment know where we will house them," he said.

With Tunisia struggling to deal with the influx, the Red Crescent has taken charge of assisting many of the rescued migrants, often with charitable help from local residents.

In April and May, Tunisian vessels rescued more than 450 migrants trying to make the dangerous crossing.

Libya has a coastline of 1,770km and has long been a stepping stone for Africans seeking a better life in Europe.

Most head for the Italian island of Lampedusa which lies some 300km from Libyan shores.

People smugglers, who have operated in Libya for years, have increased their lucrative trade, feeding on the political divisions and lawlessness that has gripped the country since the end of its 2011 uprising.

On April 19, some 750 migrants were killed when their trawler sank between Libya and southern Italy, sparking global outrage and demands for action.

The number of migrants entering the EU illegally in 2014 almost tripled to 276,000, according to European Union border agency Frontex, nearly 220,000 of them arriving via the Mediterranean.

The International Organisation for Migration said in April that some 1,750 migrants had already died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year, 30 times more than during the same period in 2014.

The UN said on Tuesday that since January, 103,000 refugees and migrants had risked their lives, often on flimsy boats, to reach Europe.

The European Union has struggled with how to respond to the migrant crisis, which has hit Italy and Greece especially hard.

EU governments have sent more boats to patrol the Mediterranean but have been unable to agree on a longer-term strategy amid divisions over how to combat traffickers and spread asylum seekers fairly across member states.