The Italian coast guard has rescued more than 2,100 migrants in a major rescue operation in the sea between Europe and North Africa.

Italy's coast guard said on Sunday that the rescued migrants were taken to Italian ports. 

It also said that four smugglers armed with Kalashnikovs threatened the rescuers in one of several operations between the Italian island of Lampedusa and the Libyan coast.

Maurizio Lupi, Italy's transport minister, said the gunmen forced the coast guards to return a boat that had been emptied of migrants.

Since the beginning of 2014, more than 150,000 migrants have arrived in Italy on unseaworthy boats, many refugees of war and conflict.

About 3,500 people died last year attempting to reach Italy by boat from North Africa.

The deaths underscored the limited means and scope of Triton, an EU-run rescue mission which took over in November from the Italian navy's Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation.

Italy decided to scale back the mission after its EU partners refused to share running costs of about $10m a month.

Source: Agencies