Italy launches rescue for hundreds of refugees on boats

An estimated 1,300 people are in danger off Calabria, where 73 people recently drowned in a shipwreck that sparked scrutiny of Italy’s rescue operations.

Italian Coast Guard vessel
The Italian coastguard has asked for help from the navy to rescue an estimated 1,300 people [File:Ciro De Luca/Reuters]

The Italian coastguard has launched multiple rescue operations to save hundreds of refugees packed aboard boats off the Calabria region, less than two weeks after at least 73 people drowned in a shipwreck.

“The rescue operations … are particularly complex due to the large number of people on board the boats adrift,”  the coastguard said in a statement on Friday.

An estimated 1,300 people were believed to be in danger.

Coastguard vessels were dispatched to rescue 500 people on a boat about 1,125km (700 miles) off the region that forms the toe of the boot-shaped Italian Peninsula.

Other vessels were sent to rescue 800 people on two more boats in difficulty about 160km (100 miles) off Calabria.

The coastguard has asked for additional help from a navy patrol boat, Italian news agency ANSA reported.

“The military ship is proceeding at full speed to offer the requested assistance,” the Ministry of Interior said in a statement quoted by ANSA.

Italy’s refugee sea rescue capabilities have come under scrutiny after a February 26 shipwreck along the same stretch of coast.

The body of a boy was recovered on Friday, bringing the death toll to 73 with many more people still missing.

Police vessels had tried but failed to reach their wooden boat last week but returned due to bad weather. The coastguard, better equipped to face rough seas, was not immediately activated.

Prosecutors are investigating whether Italian authorities failed to properly respond to the ship after the European border control agency, Frontex, warned them that the boat likely carried a large number of people.

Italy’s right-wing government has strongly rejected any blame for the shipwreck. It responded to the incident on Thursday by proposing tougher jail penalties for people smugglers and opening up legal migration channels.

Almost 3,000 refugees have reached Italy by boat since Wednesday, compared to about 1,300 during all of March last year.

In a separate incident earlier on Friday, the coastguard picked up almost 500 refugees close to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, local media reported.

ANSA said 1,869 refugees arrived in Lampedusa on Thursday aboard 41 boats, the highest number of daily arrivals ever recorded on the island.

The reception centre of Contrada Imbriacola had taken in 3,000 people, the agency said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies