ROME (AP) — Italian coast guard and navy vessels on Saturday ferried hundreds of rescued migrants toward shore, while elsewhere in the Mediterranean Sea thousands of migrants overflowed from a shelter on a tiny tourist island.
The influx of sea arrivals came in the face of a crackdown by Italy’s right-wing government on people smugglers announced only two days earlier.
The coast guard said in a statement that overcrowding on two vessels and adverse sea and weather conditions had complicated rescue operations that began on Friday in the Ionian Sea off Calabria.
A 94-meter (310-foot) -long coast guard vessel took 584 migrants aboard, while two smaller coast guard motorboats took on 379 and then transferred them to an Italian naval vessel, which was headed to Augusta, a port in eastern Sicily, as migrant shelters in Calabria quickly filled up.
Separately, a boat carrying 487 people, intercepted by Italian vessels some 60 nautical miles (112 kilometers) off Crotone in Calabria on Friday, was aided by two coast guard motorboats and a border police boat. The migrants disembarked in Crotone’s port before dawn on Saturday.
A beach in Cutro, a town south of Crotone, is where where survivors and bodies were found on Feb. 26 after a wooden boat, crowded with migrants who had set out from Turkey days earlier, broke apart on a sandbank.
The known death toll from the shipwreck climbed to 76 on Saturday after the bodies of two children and an adult were recovered, Italian news agency ANSA reported. Eighty passengers survived, but others were reported missing and are presumed dead.
Italian prosecutors are investigating whether authorities should have swiftly launched a rescue operation after a patrol plane operated by Frontex, the European Union’s border protection agency, spotted the wooden boat, hours before it broke apart dozens of meters (yards) from the beach.
Some 5,000 people, walking behind a bearer of a cross fashioned from the boat’s wreckage, joined a procession to the beach in Cutro, demanding increased efforts to save migrants at sea.
Meanwhile, on tiny Lampedusa island, an Italian fishing and tourist location south of Sicily, some 3,000 newly arrived migrants overflowed from a shelter meant to hold less than 350. Hundreds of migrants spent the night sleeping on mattresses on the fenced-off grounds of the shelter.
Plans to ease some of the overcrowding on Lampedusa by transferring hundreds of migrants aboard a ferry were complicated by high winds whipping the island, making it impossible for the ship to dock on Saturday morning. Italian media reported that some 140 migrants were then transferred from the island by air.
Authorities on Lampedusa said many of the migrants arriving on the island, which is closer to northern Africa than to the Italian mainland, had sailed from the port of Sfax, in Tunisia, a route increasingly used by smugglers.
The U.N. migration agency estimates some 300 people have died or are missing and presumed dead along the perilous central Mediterranean route this year.