ROME - Italy on Monday said it was deploying drones and warships in a large-scale high seas patrol mission to scare people smugglers amid a growing influx of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean.
"We have given the go-ahead to Operation Mare Nostrum (Our Sea)," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said after a government meeting, following two refugee shipwreck disasters this month.
Defence Minister Mario Mauro said there would now be five warships on Italy's southern maritime border, including one equipped with an amphibious transport dock to take in refugees.
There are currently three navy vessels on patrol, along with six coast guard patrol boats and six border guard patrol boats, as well as helicopters and planes from each of the three agencies.
More helicopters and planes will now be sent to the vast area, equipped with night-vision and infrared technology to help spot refugee boats.
Mauro said the operation was intended to "help those in trouble at sea and make things difficult for the mother ships that put people's lives at risk by sending them out on rickety boats".
Larger boats sometimes make most of the journey and then send out smaller ones laden with asylum seekers once they are closer to Italian shores as part of a lucrative people-smuggling network.
"This will have a very significant deterrent effect for those who think they can traffic in human beings with impunity," the interior minister said.
The defence minister said that Italy would also use "remote piloting systems to increase the surveillance as much as possible" - a reference to Predator drones, according to Italian media reports.
Italian officials fended off accusations from migration rights advocates that the operation reflected a "Fortress Europe" mentality. The European Commission has urged European states to provide ships, planes and funds for the EU's Frontex border agency patrols after more than 360 people drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Italy's worst-ever refugee tragedy happened in the early hours of October 3 when a boat laden with Eritrean and Somali asylum-seekers caught fire, capsized and sank within sight of the coast.
Dozens of burials in anonymous vaults began on Monday in a small cemetery of Piano Gatta near the city of Agrigento in Sicily, even though Prime Minister Enrico Letta had promised to hold a state funeral for the victims. There were heartbreaking scenes as the coffins were taken off Lampedusa by ship, with grieving relatives and members of the Eritrean diaspora throwing themselves on the caskets in despair. "What we have experienced in these days is a painful chapter that calls for responsibility from Europe," Lampedusa mayor Giusi Nicolini said.
The Lampedusa disaster was followed just days later, last Friday, by another tragedy off Malta in which at least 36 Syrian refugees are now confirmed drowned after their boat flipped over.
"It is unacceptable that the Mediterranean become a sea of death," Letta, who wants the refugees to be a key issue on the agenda for a summit of EU leaders in Brussels next week, said on Monday.
The prime minister said the new patrol mission would be operational from Tuesday.
Letta is also planning to request that an Italian be appointed to head up Frontex and that the agency open an office in Italy, reports said.
Frontex is based in Poland and headed up by executive director Ilkka Laitinen from Finland.
Maltese Interior Minister Manuel Mallia meanwhile called for an "immediate solution" to the problem by boosting surveillance at points of departure - chiefly the coast of an increasingly lawless Libya.
"Talking won't save lives," Mallia said in parliament, asking for "real solidarity" from other European states who could take in migrants who are stuck on Malta under current rules.
The UN refugee agency estimates 32,000 asylum seekers have landed in Italy and Malta this year - many of them from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria.
The numbers have increased drastically since the Arab Spring revolts in North Africa in 2011, and there is a particularly serious problem in Libya, which is unable to control its maritime frontier.
"We have a non-state like Libya in front of us," Mauro said, adding: "What is going on in Syria will make millions of people flee for decades."
The arrivals continued unabated on Monday with four boatloads carrying more than 300 migrants landing on Italian shores, including one with 137 Syrian asylum seekers that landed on Lampedusa.
The Syrians have been taken to an overcrowded refugee centre where some of the 155 survivors from the October 3 disaster are also being housed.