ROME (AFP) - Italy's coast guard said on Saturday that it was coordinating the rescue of up to 3,000 migrants from waters off Libya after receiving SOS calls from 18 different crowded vessels.
At least seven boats - six Italian and one from Norway - were involved in an operation to get the migrants safely off 14 rubber dinghies and four other vessels carrying an estimated total of between 2,000 and 3,000 people.
More than 104,000 migrants from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have landed at Italy's southern ports so far this year after being rescued in the Mediterranean.
A further 135,000-plus have landed in Greece and more than 2,300 people have died at sea while trying to make it to Europe with the help of people smugglers.
Police in Palermo, on the Italian island of Sicily, announced on Saturday that they had arrested six Egyptian nationals on suspicion of people smuggling following the rescue of a stricken boat on Aug 19.
Testimony from the 432 migrants on board suggest the vessel had been packed with more than ten times the number of people it was designed for, with many of the passengers, including a number of women and children, locked below decks.
They had each paid the traffickers 2,000 euros (S$3,170) for the passage from Egypt to Italy, according to statements given to police.
On board, the crew were reported to be demanding further payment to allow those locked in the hold to come up temporarily for air.
Humanitarian organisations say the surge in the numbers of people trying to reach European Union countries is the result of conflicts or repression in east Africa and the Middle East.
They have called on European governments to shoulder more of the burden of absorbing the wave of asylum seekers and to help create safer routes for them to reach Europe.