ROME (Reuters) - Italian and merchant ships rescued around 1,000 migrants from three overcrowded skiffs near the coast of Libya and found one dead body, Italy’s coast guard said.
The migrants sent out a distress call by satellite phone on Friday and were being taken to ports in Sicily, the coast guard added in a statement, without giving details of their nationalities.
Two other inflatable boats carrying 73 people — identified as Syrians, Kurds and Somalis — were intercepted by police off the Italian coast near Puglia, according to a separate statement from the police. Two Albanian smugglers were arrested in the operation.
Refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa regularly risk the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean, often between Libya and Sicily, to reach the European Union.
Around 3,500 are estimated to have drowned last year when more than 170,000 migrants managed to reach Italy by sea.
At least 480 migrants lost their lives in the Mediterranean during the first three months of this year, compared with fewer than 50 fatalities during the same period last year, the International Organisation for Migration said on Friday.
International human rights groups have said this year’s higher death toll is at least partly due to Italy’s decision to end its “Mare Nostrum” search and rescue mission last year, replacing it with a more limited European Union border control mission called Triton.
But Matteo Salvini, head of the opposition Northern League party, attacked Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government on Saturday, saying Italy was “running a taxi service to help smugglers”.
Three vessels from Italy’s navy and coast guard and three merchant ships took part in Friday’s rescue mission about 30 miles from Libya’s coast, according to the coast guard statement.
Around 1,500 people were picked up from five boats near the Libyan coast last week.
Editing by Andrew Heavens and Susan Fenton