Thousands of refugees needed rescuing off EU coast

THOUSANDS of refugees were rescued from a fleet of small wooden boats in a major operation off the coast of Libya yesterday.

Captured in dramatic images and video, the rescue involved Italian naval ships and vessels operated by two non-government groups.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it was still trying to verify the number of mainly Somali and Eritrean nationals fleeing Libya on around 20 small, unseaworthy wooden boats, spotted by the authorities just 21km (13 miles) off the coast near Sabratha.

But the Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms said 3,000 refugees were rescued, making it one of the largest single operations in the Mediterranean this year.

The charity's vessels were among the first to encounter the smugglers' boats, prompting some of the refugees on board to jump into the water and start swimming towards them. Others were pictured carefully carrying babies onto the rescue ships.

They were then transferred to the larger ships of the Italian navy and MSF, and it is expected they will be taken on to be processed either in Sicily or the Italian mainland.

More than 100,000 refugees have now reached Italy after crossing the Mediterranean in the past year, most coming from Libya.

Yesterday's rescue highlighted the dangerous tactics used by smugglers, who charge large sums for space on a boat they know will be unlikely to make the journey. They then face the prospect of either being picked up by rescuers, or drowning.

It comes a day after 1,100 refugees were picked up in the Strait of Sicily, crowded onto eight rubber dinghies, two punts and one larger boat.

In June, the EU expanded its anti-smuggling operation in the central Mediterranean to include training Libyan coastal and naval forces, which are intercepting boats and returning migrants to Libya.

But there are concerns for the conditions in which returned refugees are being held.

Rights groups say 3,500 are being held in around 20 official detention facilities across Libya, with many more detained in informal detention centres run by criminal gangs.

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