More than 6,000 people have been rescued on the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy in the last few days, as greater numbers take to the sea in warmer weather, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday.

About 500 refugees and migrants are believed to have drowned so far this year, including 22 deaths just reported by the Libyan coastguard, according to IOM spokesman Joel Millman.

"We have yet to complete March, and we are already racing at a pace of arrivals that has exceeded anything we've seen before in the Mediterranean. This is typical of spring, getting very busy," he said.

"But it's not typical to have the numbers be so high this early and the corresponding deaths that go with it."

Aid to Libya

Italian and European officials said on Monday they were ready to send equipment and economic aid to Libya to help fight traffickers who have thrived in a power vacuum left by the 2011 overthrow of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

So far this year 16,248 migrants have arrived in Italy, up from 13,825 in the same period last year.

However, the overall number of migrants arriving in Europe, and particularly on Greek islands, has dropped substantially since the EU and Turkey agreed to prevent people making the crossing in return for financial and diplomatic incentives.

Across Europe, 160,331 migrants arrived by sea at this time last year compared to an estimated total of 20,484 arrivals so far this year, which includes those reaching Greece and Spain.

Source: News agencies