Italy launches scaled-up refugee sea patrol ops

ROME (AFP) - Italy launched a massive patrol operation in the Mediterranean on Tuesday to scare off people smugglers, save asylum-seekers and pressure Europe to help deal with a growing refugee influx.

Drones, warships and helicopters were deployed both inside and outside national waters following two tragic shipwrecks this month in which 400 Eritrean, Somali and Syrian refugees drowned.

Hi-tech radars and night-vision equipment are also being used in a bid to prevent another disaster.

The navy has dispatched five warships to patrol the vast area and said in a statement on Tuesday that it had rescued 290 migrants near the island of Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost territory.

One boatload of 80 migrants was rescued 60 nautical miles south of Lampedusa by a frigate.

The second with 210 migrants was intercepted by a navy patrol vessel and three coast guard boats some 45 nautical miles from the island.

The latest arrivals come on top of the 32,000 asylum seekers that the UN refugee agency says have landed in Italy and Malta so far this year - four times more than the number for all of 2012.

Many leave from an increasingly lawless Libya that cannot control its maritime border and most of the landings take place on Lampedusa, where the tiny local refugee centre is often badly overcrowded.

Thousands have perished over the years as the crossings are often made on rickety fishing boats.

The refugee shipwreck on October 3 off Lampedusa was the country's worst ever, with 364 people killed after their 20-metre boat caught fire, capsized and sank within sight of the shore.

Just a few days later another heavily laden boat flipped over off Malta, killing at least 36 of the Syrian refugees on board.

Italy has called for the refugee issue to be on the agenda of a summit of European Union (EU) leaders next week and wants changes to the way the Frontex EU border agency is run to deal with the emergency.

Italy also wants a change in asylum laws that currently mean all asylum-seekers must stay in the European country where they first arrive while their application is being considered.

Southern European countries like Italy argue this puts an unfair burden on them as the landing points, but northern European states argue they end up taking in most of the refugees.

There have also been growing calls within Italy for reform of a tough immigration law that brands all irregular migrants as criminal suspects and punishes anyone accused of helping their journey.