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Seven bodies found in migrant boat off Libya

Migrants arrive at a naval base after they were rescued by Libyan coastguard, in Tripoli, Libya October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

ROME (Reuters) - The bodies of seven migrants were discovered on Wednesday in a boat adrift off Libya while around 900 people were saved in operations in the southern Mediterranean, Italy’s coastguard said.

It was one of the most intense days of rescues recorded in the area in recent months and follows a sharp fall-off in the number of migrants reaching Italy.

A Coastguard spokesman said the seven bodies were picked up by a boat under the command of a European Union naval force operating in the Mediterranean. He had no further information about who they were or how they had died.

About 900 migrants were rescued in eight different missions, the spokesman said, adding that he expected they would be brought to Italy later in the week.

Migrant arrivals in Italy fell 30 percent in the first eight months of the year, the Interior Ministry said this week, thanks mainly to a sharp decline since July when Italy struck a deal with Libya to block would-be asylum seekers from setting sail.

As part of the deal, the Libyan coastguard has played a much more active role in preventing crossings. Earlier this week, it intercepted 299 migrants from sub-Saharan African countries on two rubber boats east of Tripoli, officials said.

Libya’s western shoreline is the main departure point for migrants trying to reach Europe by boat, many of them fleeing conflict or poverty.

The Interior Ministry said on Tuesday that between January and October, 111,397 migrants had reached Italy by boat against 159,427 in the same period in 2016. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that so far this year at least 2,630 people have died at sea trying to cross to Italy.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Andrew Heavens