By Philip Pullella
At least 10 North African migrants died when their rubber boat overturned in the southern Mediterranean while hundreds more from that vessel and another were rescued, Italian and Tunisian authorities said on Wednesday.
The Italian coast guard said in a statement that one of its ships in the area had managed to rescue most of about 130 people on a boat that capsized on Tuesday some 50 miles north of Libya. Ten bodies were recovered.
Tunisian naval forces rescued all 81 migrants onboard after their boat started taking on water off near the Tunisian island of Djerba on Tuesday night, the country’s defence ministry said.
Last month, more than 300 people died in a one-week period trying to cross the sea from Africa to Italy, whose southern island of Lampedusa is just 113 km from Tunisia,
Most of the boats leave from Libya, which is in a state of near-anarchy and where smugglers charge up to $2,000 for the crossing.
The Italian coast guard ship was already carrying 318 migrants rescued in a previous mission on Tuesday and is now heading to a Sicilian port, the coast guard said.
Seven separate missions in a 24-hour period had rescued a total of 941 migrants, including 30 children and 50 women, one of them pregnant, it added.
Italy ended its large-scale search-and-rescue mission Mare Nostrum last year because of the cost and amid criticism from some who said it merely encouraged people to make the crossing.
Mare Nostrum was set up after more than 360 migrants drowned when their boat capsized near the Italian coast in October 2013.
It has been replaced by an EU border control mission, Triton, that does not have a specific search-and-rescue mandate and which has fewer ships and a much smaller area of operation hugging tightly to the Italian coast. The UN refugee organisation UNHCR says at least 218,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean by boat in 2014 and 3,500 lives were lost.