Italy’s coast guard has launched multiple rescue operations to rescue hundreds of refugees crowded onto boats off the Calabria region, less than two weeks after at least 73 people drowned in a shipwreck.
“Rescue operations (…) are particularly complicated due to the large number of people on board the boats,” the Coast Guard said in a statement on Friday.
It is estimated that 1,300 people are at risk.
Coast Guard ships were sent to rescue 500 people on a boat about 1,125 kilometers (700 miles) from the area that makes up the finger of the Italian peninsula.
Other ships were sent to rescue the 800 people on board two other struggling craft 160 km off Calabria.
The Italian news agency ANSA reported that the coast guard requested additional assistance from a naval patrol boat.
“The military ship is moving at maximum speed to provide the required assistance,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement reported by the Italian news agency (ANSA).
Maritime rescue capabilities for refugees in Italy have come under scrutiny following a shipwreck on 26 February along the same coast.
The body of a boy was found on Friday, bringing the death toll to 73, with more missing.
Police ships tried to reach his wooden boat last week, but failed, but turned back again due to bad weather. The Coast Guard, better equipped to deal with rough seas, was not activated immediately.
Prosecutors are investigating whether Italian authorities failed to respond appropriately to the ship after European border control agency Frontex warned them that the boat was likely carrying too many people.
Italy’s right-wing government has vehemently denied any responsibility for the sinking. He responded to the incident on Thursday by proposing tougher prison sentences for smugglers and opening legal immigration channels.
Nearly 3,000 refugees have arrived in Italy by boat since Wednesday, compared to about 1,300 in the whole of March last year.
In a separate incident earlier on Friday, local media reported that the Coast Guard had detained nearly 500 refugees near the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.
ANSA said 1,869 refugees arrived in Lampedusa on Thursday on 41 boats, the highest number of daily arrivals ever recorded on the island.
The agency said the Contrada Imperiacola reception center had received 3,000 people.