ROME (AP) – Dozens of migrants were dramatically rescued by Italy on Sunday when they sank in the sea or clung to a rocky reef after three boats launched by smugglers from North Africa were shipwrecked in separate incidents in rough waters over the weekend. Survivors said about 30 fellow migrants were missing on capsized ships.
In one particularly risky operation, two helicopters battled high winds to escort migrants, one after the other, to safety, including a child and two pregnant women who were stranded on a steep, rocky reef on the tiny island of Lampedusa for almost two days were. The migrants had clung to the craggy rocks after their boat crashed into the reef late Friday.
For years, migrants have embarked on unseaworthy smuggler ships to make the risky crossing of the Mediterranean Sea and reach southern European shores in hopes of gaining asylum or finding families or jobs, particularly in northern European countries.
All 34 migrants who held out for two nights on the reef have been rescued, said Federico Catania, a spokesman for the Alpine aid group, whose experts were dropped from a hovering Italian Air Force helicopter. Migrants, some wearing shorts and flip-flops, clung to their rescuers as they were pulled onto the helicopter. A fire brigade helicopter also carried out part of the rescue operations.
The two women, including one in an advanced stage of pregnancy, were examined by medical staff, said Maria Ylenia Di Paola, a Lampedusa nurse. She told Italian state television that the women were dehydrated and cold, “but more importantly, they were mentally distressed.”
The helicopter operation was launched after the Coast Guard determined the rough seas would make it impossible for lifeboats to safely approach the jagged rocks. A day earlier, Italian helicopters dropped food, water and thermal blankets to migrants on the reef.
Meanwhile, survivors of two boats that capsized about 23 nautical miles (42.5 kilometers) southwest of Lampedusa on Saturday told rescuers about 30 fellow migrants were missing. The Coast Guard said it rescued 57 migrants and recovered the bodies of a child and a woman in two operations.
Coast Guard members lowered a wide rope ladder and helped hoist migrants onto their rescue ship, which was being rocked by windswept waves. At least one Coast Guard diver jumped into the sea to help guide a raft that was thrown into the Mediterranean Sea by rescuers for survivors to hold on to while it was towed toward the ship, Coast Guard video shows the rescue.
In 2023, before the two bodies were recovered on Saturday, a total of 1,814 migrants were known to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy on boats departing from Tunisia or Libya, said Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman the UN migration agency IOM.
So many have made the crossing in recent days that 2,450 migrants are currently being housed in the Lampedusa temporary shelter, which has capacity for about 400 people, said Ignazio Schintu, an Italian Red Cross official who runs the center. Once the winds ease and the seas calm down, Italy will again bring hundreds of them to Sicily to ease the overcrowding, he told state television.
Home countries of some of the rescued migrants include Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon and Ivory Coast, Schintu said.
The two boats, which capsized on the open sea, probably left Sfax, a Tunisian port, on Thursday in good sea conditions, the Italian coast guard said.
But with sea conditions predicted to worsen on Saturday, “it’s even more criminal for smugglers to let them exit,” said IOM’s Di Giacomo.
Traveling from Libya’s shores used to be riskier, he said, but with Tunisia-based smugglers using particularly weak vessels lately, this route via the central Mediterranean is becoming increasingly deadly.
Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa make their way from Tunisia in “fragile iron ships that often break in two after 24 hours and the migrants fall into the sea,” Di Giacomo said in an audio message from Sicily.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose right-wing government includes the anti-migrant Lega party, has persuaded the European Union to join efforts to promise aid to persuade the Tunisian leader to crack down on migrant smuggling. But despite a recent spate of visits to Tunisia by European leaders, boats continue to be launched from Tunisian ports on an almost daily basis.
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