ROME Italy's coast guard and navy rescued about 350 people, mostly Syrians, off the coast of southeastern Sicily on Wednesday, and a port official said he expected more refugees fleeing Syria's civil war to arrive.
The navy recovered almost 200 people from a badly overcrowded and crippled fishing boat. They said they were Syrians, but most were not carrying passports, so their nationality has yet to be confirmed, a navy spokesman said.
Among those rescued were 48 children, including a four-day-old girl born during the crossing. The baby and her mother were in good condition, the spokesman said.
A second boat carrying about 150 migrants was rescued by the coast guard later, but their nationalities have not yet been determined, said Luca Sancilio, head of the Syracuse port authority.
"We've seen a majority of Syrians arriving in recent days," he told SkyTG24 television. "Given what is happening in Syria right now, we expect many more will come."
Many thousands of migrants try to reach the southern shores of Italy every summer when Mediterranean waters are sufficiently calm for small boats to make the crossing from Libya or Tunisia, as has been the case in recent days.
Though most normally come from sub-Saharan Africa, this year many are fleeing the Syrian civil war or political turmoil in Egypt and other parts of North Africa.
Almost 9,000 migrants reached Italy by boat between July 1 and August 10, the Interior Ministry said two weeks ago.
In the past 12 months, more than 24,000 have come, compared with more than 17,000 in the same period a year earlier, and almost 25,000 in the 12 months before that, the ministry said.
Normally the flood of migrants is drawn by hopes of finding work in the European Union and many do not remain in Italy.
"The refugees themselves tell us that Italy is a stepping stone, and most of them are seeking to find work north of the Alps," Sancilio said.
Illegal migrants intercepted by Italian authorities are taken to state-run immigration centers. Some leave the often lightly guarded buildings to seek work, and those who remain and cannot prove that they are political refugees can be sent home.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and James Mackenzie; writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Alistair Lyon)