ROME - Italy’s navy has rescued 233 mostly African immigrants from a boat in trouble off the coast of the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, the scene of two shipwreck tragedies last year.
The 10-metre-long wooden boat was sighted by a navy helicopter in choppy waters late Wednesday with immigrants from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, Zambia and Mali aboard, including seven women.
“Considering the rough seas, the overcrowded boat and the precarious conditions, a situation of emergency was declared,” the navy said in a statement.
The immigrants were rescued by the destroyer San Marco before being transferred to a frigate which was ferrying them to the port town of Augusta in eastern Sicily, where they were expected to arrive late Thursday. A navy spokesperson said the immigrants had been suffering from prolonged exposure to cold weather but were otherwise in good health.
The Italian government has launched a major operation called “Mare Nostrum”, mobilising warships, amphibious vessels and aircraft to try and prevent further tragedies like the two shipwrecks in October in which more than 400 immigrants died. As the closest Italian island to Africa, Lampedusa is a frequent destination for refugees seeking to enter European Union countries, and shipwrecks off its shores are common.
More than 300 African migrants died in October after their ship sank off the island’s shores. Days later, another 34 people died when their boat capsized.
Tens of thousands of people are rescued each year from the Mediterranean, according to the European Union border agency, Frontex.
Smugglers often pack migrants into unseaworthy, ill-equipped and overcrowded boats, adding to the dangers of the journey. Between January and September of last year, 31,000 migrants are believed to have entered the European Union illegally by crossing the Mediterranean to land on Italian soil or the island of Malta, Frontex said.