ROME • Around 6,500 migrants trying to reach Europe on unsafe boats have been saved off the coast of Libya in 40 separate rescue missions, the Italian coastguard said, in one of the busiest days of life-saving in recent years.
Dramatic images of one operation on Monday showed about 700 migrants crammed onto a fishing boat, with some of them jumping off the vessel in life jackets and swimming towards rescuers.
A five-day-old baby was among those rescued, along with other infants, and was airlifted to an Italian hospital, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which took part in the rescue operations. Most of the rescued migrants were believed to be Africans.
"The command centre coordinated 40 rescue operations" that included vessels from Italy, humanitarian groups as well as the European Union's border agency Frontex, saving 6,500 migrants, the Italian coastguard wrote on Twitter.
"We've been particularly busy today," said a spokesman for the coastguard on Monday.
On Sunday, more than 1,100 migrants were rescued from the same area. The total number of arrivals in Italy this year now stands at 112,500, according to the United Nations' refugee agency and the coastguard, slightly below the 116,000 recorded by the same point last year.
Almost all of those migrants originate from West Africa and the Horn of Africa, often departing from Libya en masse when the sea is calm and a southern wind can push boats up into international waters.
Such days often come one after another, leading to large numbers of boats - many of them just rubber dinghies - setting out over a short period. More than 13,000 people were rescued in under a week at the end of May, and 8,300 more at the start of this month.
The Italian coastguard predicted that weather conditions would encourage the departure of further migrant boats yesterday. Italy has been on the front line of Europe's migrant crisis for three years, and more than 400,000 have successfully made the voyage to Italy from North Africa since the beginning of 2014, fleeing violence and poverty.
The vessels are often flimsy and overcrowded while some of the migrants set off in such poor health that even if the crossing is calm they cannot survive a day at sea.
There are around a dozen vessels run by humanitarian groups that patrol the waters off the Libyan coast, but tensions in the zone have flared recently as rival factions battle to control migrant trafficking.
This month, an MSF ship taking part in migrant rescue operations came under attack from armed men who shot at the vessel before briefly climbing aboard, the medical charity said. Nobody was hurt in the Aug 17 incident, the group said.
More than 3,000 migrants have died at sea while trying to reach either Greece or Italy since the start of this year, an increase of some 50 per cent on the same period in 2015.
Some 204,000 others crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in the first six months this year, the United Nations refugee agency said, as the continent battles its worst migration crisis since World War II.
Last year, more than one million migrants made the journey to Europe, with the majority fleeing war in Syria and the Middle East.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS