ROME (AFP/REUTERS) - Nearly 3,500 migrants were rescued on Saturday from 15 boats off the coast of Libya, the privately funded Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and Italy's coast guard said.
The boats – nine wooden boats thought to be converted fishing vessels and six large rubber dinghies – were all found drifting around 72.4km off the Libyan coast after issuing distress calls via satellite phone on Saturday morning, the coast guard said.
Boats from the Italian, German and Irish navies took part in the rescue operation, which was coordinated in its initial stages by MOAS, a privately funded rescue operation operating out of Malta in partnership with the Doctors without Borders (MSF) charity. "We have several assets at work," a coast guard spokesman said.
The exact number of migrants rescued was put at 3,480 by the coast guard and there were no reports of casualties. One Italian navy boat which was ferrying 475 migrants to Sicily reported that it had seven pregnant women amongst its human cargo.
The migrants were packed onto wooden fishing boats in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast.
During the first five months of the year, there were 46,500 sea arrivals in Italy, a 12 per cent increase on the same period of last year, the UN refugee agency said. Italy's government projects 200,000 will come this year, up from 170,000 in 2014.
The summer months are usually the busiest period for departures because the calm seas make the crossing easier.
This year, growing anarchy in Libya - the last point on one of the main transit routes to Europe - is giving free hand to people smugglers who make an average of 80,000 euros (S$120,000) from each boatload, according to an ongoing investigation by an Italian court.
MOAS, which is operating a privately funded rescue operation with Doctors without Borders, said its Phoenix ship plucked 372 people, mostly Eritreans from one boat.
The Italian navy said one of its ships was still trying to remove about 560 from a wooden boat, while another navy ship has finished rescuing 316 from yet another.