Migrant boats reported in difficulty off Libya

UNHCR says at least 218,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean by boat last year and 3,500 lives were lost. (File Photo: AP)
UNHCR says at least 218,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean by boat last year and 3,500 lives were lost. (Photo: AP)

A Maltese cargo ship was heading to assist a migrant boat with around 100 people on board in difficulty off the coast of Libya on Friday, and an Italian coast guard vessel was helping two other boats, Italian coastguards said.

More than 300 African migrants have already died attempting to reach Italy from North Africa this week, highlighting the chronic migrant problem in the Mediterranean following the closure of Italy’s Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation last October.

Coastguard headquarters in Rome, which was coordinating both Friday’s operations, said it had received a request for help by satellite telephone and had directed the Maltese ship to the location of the first vessel, a rubber boat.

The second incident was reported around 30 nautical miles from the Libyan capital Tripoli, and an Italian coastguard ship was already on the scene.

The coastguard said an improvement in weather conditions had allowed more migrant boats to set off from Libya, where the breakdown in law and order has allowed people-smugglers free rein.

The U.N. refugee organisation UNHCR says at least 218,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean by boat last year and 3,500 lives were lost.

This week’s deaths have renewed focus on the European Union mission that replaced Mare Nostrum. Unlike its predecessor, Triton does not have a specific search-and-rescue mandate, and limits its border control operations to the waters around the Italian coast.

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