March 29, 2013 / 7:45 PM / 7 years ago

Hundreds of migrants rescued off Italian coast

ROME (Reuters) - Italian coastguards said on Friday they had intercepted almost 700 mostly African migrants trying to get to the country on board 10 flimsy and rickety boats.

One vessel crammed with 150 people sent out a distress call about 80 miles off the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Friday afternoon, the service said.

Emergency services were sent to rescue them and another 70 people in a rubber craft nearby. All the other boats were stopped over the last two days.

Italy’s coast is a common destination for migrants from north and sub-Saharan Africa.

Thousands have died during the risky voyage across the Mediterranean as a result of shipwreck, harsh conditions and a lack of food and water, say activists.

“With the arrival of the spring and the subsequent improvement in the weather conditions, migrant attempts to reach the Italian coast have picked up massively,” the coastguard said in a statement.

A 15-metre long rubber boat carrying 98 people from sub-Saharan Africa was intercepted 96 miles off the coast of the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Thursday, a coastguard official said.

Rescue workers then received an emergency call from another boat carrying 131 people from sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh close to Lampedusa, which they brought to shore.

Overnight the coastguard rescued 31 people from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa on a boat off the southern coast of Sicily, which was also heading to Lampedusa.

The official said 214 other migrants, mainly from Africa, on five boats had also been detained in the past 48 hours.

All the migrants are being held in reception centers in Sicily and Lampedusa, the official said.

An estimated 1,500 migrants lost their lives in the Mediterranean in 2011, many of them trying to escape the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa, according to Human Rights Watch. It estimated the death toll in 2012 at more than 300.

Reporting By Catherine Hornby; Editing by Pravin Char

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