ROME (AFP) - Three female migrants died during a treacherous voyage to Europe in a rubber dinghy and 174 others were rescued as they made their way to the Italian island of Lampedusa, media reported Sunday.
A group of 90 Somali immigrants was intercepted while drifting in a dinghy in the Canal of Sicily and was rescued by a merchant vessel that took them to Lampedusa.
Local media reported the migrants were exhausted and in poor condition after their five-day journey in the rickety vessel. The passengers reported the three women had died during the journey and that their bodies had been thrown overboard.
A separate group of 84 immigrants was rescued on Saturday by an Italian military boat south of Lampedusa.
Since 1999, more than 200,000 people have arrived on Lampedusa - which is closer to North Africa than Italy - making it, along with the Greece-Turkey border, one of the top gateways for undocumented migrants and refugees into the European Union.
Hundreds drown every year trying to reach the tiny island, which measures 20 sq km.
Lampedusa has seen an increase in arrivals in recent weeks, with around 4,000 so far this year - three times more than during the same period in 2012.
But the numbers are still far from the peaks reached in 2011 as maritime border controls disintegrated during the Arab Spring revolts in North Africa.