ROME (Reuters) - Italian vessels have helped rescue more than 2,600 migrants from boats trying to reach Europe from North Africa in the last 24 hours, the coastguard said on Monday, indicating that numbers are rising as the weather warms up.
Some 2,000 migrants were rescued off the Libyan coast from 14 rubber dinghies and one larger boat in salvage operations by the Italian navy and coastguard, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres and an Irish navy vessel, the coastguard said.
Another 636 migrants were rescued from two boats in Maltese waters, in operations involving Maltese and Italian vessels, it said. It gave no information about the nationalities of those saved.
More than 31,000 migrants have reached Italy by boat so far this year, slightly fewer than in the same period of 2015.
Humanitarian organizations say the sea route between Libya and Italy is now the main route for asylum seekers heading for Europe, after an EU deal on migrants with Turkey dramatically slowed the flow of people reaching Greece.
Officials fear the numbers trying to make the crossing to southern Italy will increase as conditions improve in warmer weather.
More than 1.2 million Arab, African and Asian migrants fleeing war and poverty have streamed into the European Union since the start of last year.
Most of those trying to reach Italy leave the coast of lawless Libya on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies, heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is close to Tunisia, or toward Sicily.
Reporting By Gavin Jones; editing by John Stonestreet