Italian ships rescue more than 2,000 migrants in 48 hours

ROME, March 19 Wed Mar 19, 2014 5:25am EDT

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ROME, March 19 (Reuters) - Italian naval and coastguard vessels rescued more than 2,000 migrants travelling in boats from North Africa over the past 48 hours, authorities said on Wednesday, underlining the scale of illegal migration into southern Europe.

The announcement came a day after some 500 people forced their way into Spain's North African enclave of Melilla, the largest number to storm the border in almost a decade.

The Italian navy said 2,128 migrants had been rescued by ships operating in the Mare Nostrum taskforce off the southern coast of Sicily, including 596 picked up at sea on March 17 who were expected to arrive in the port of Augusta on Wednesday.

Three merchant ships also took part in the rescue operation, the navy statement said.

Italy has struggled for decades with a steady stream of migrants travelling in small, unsafe boats from North Africa to the tiny island of Lampedusa, midway between Tunisia and Sicily. But the problem has ballooned since the "Arab Spring" turmoil of 2011, the breakdown of order in Libya and civil war in Syria.

According to latest data from Frontex, the European Union's border agency, more than 20,000 people entered Europe illegally through Lampedusa and other parts of Sicily in the third quarter of 2013 alone. They accounted for almost half of all illegal border crossings into the 28-nation EU.

Italy has stepped up naval and air patrols off the coast of Sicily since hundreds of migrants drowned last year in two separate disasters near Lampedusa.

But the number of arrivals is expected to rise as sailing conditions improve with the onset of spring. (Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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