ROME (AFP) - Italy's navy said Thursday it had rescued more than 1,100 immigrants on eight dinghies in 24 hours and warned that calmer seas could see the numbers rise further.
"Eight boats carrying a total of 1,123 people were assisted on Wednesday off the coast of Lampedusa island. They all appear to be from sub-Saharan Africa," captain Marco Maccaroni told AFP.
"They are being transported to Augusta in Sicily, where they will arrive early Friday," he said. Around 50 women were among those crowded onto the dinghies, along with dozens of alleged minors.
The migrants were rescued as part of the Italian government's "Mare Nostrum" operation, which mobilises warships, amphibious vessels and aircraft to try and prevent further tragedies like the two shipwrecks in October in which more than 400 immigrants died.
"Unfortunately, we estimate around 3,000 people are currently trying to make it across in boats every month," said Maccaroni, adding that in the three months the operation has been up and running, 9,300 people have been rescued.
"With the arrival of the spring and better weather conditions, it's likely the number will increase," he said.
According to Italy's deputy interior minister, Filippo Bubico, the number of refugees landing in Italy rose tenfold in January, "in an incessant and massive influx of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East." Immigration charities estimate that between 17,000 and 20,000 migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe over the past 20 years, often crossing on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies.