ROME • Italy's coast guard yesterday said it was coordinating the rescue of up to 3,000 migrants from waters off Libya, after receiving SOS calls from 18 different 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 2,000 to 3,000 people.
The route from Libya to Italy is one of the busiest for migrants trying to enter Europe.
So far this year, more than 104,000 migrants from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have landed at Italy's southern ports after being rescued in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
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, said yesterday 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 10 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 (S$3,200) for the passage from Egypt to Italy, according to statements given to police.
The crew were reported to be demanding further payment to allow those locked in the hold to come up temporarily for air.
Meanwhile, hundreds of mostly Syrian refugees seeking a better life in western Europe yesterday arrived at the Greek-Macedonian border where some 2,000 others are stranded in a no-man's land after being stopped by Macedonian police.
The refugees and migrants who have been there since last Thursday have spent the nights sleeping on the ground despite heavy rain and chilly overnight temperatures.
"It rained and many people couldn't protect themselves. One mother lost her daughter and was calling for her all through the night," said 49-year-old Samer Moin, a doctor from Syria who crossed from Turkey to the Greek island of Halki before managing to reach the Macedonian border.
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 the continent.
At least 40 migrants died in the hold of a boat off Italy on Aug 15 as the EU struggled to cope with "the worst refugee crisis since World War II", with thousands making dangerous crossings to reach Italy and Greece.
Of the 312 survivors, there were 45 women and three children. In the same EU patrol and rescue operation, Triton, almost 400 other migrants were picked up in the Mediterranean.