More than 500 migrants saved in dramatic Mediterranean rescue; at least 5 die

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A fishing boat carrying some 590 migrants from Libya dramatically capsized in the Mediterranean on Wednesday, throwing hundreds into the sea and leaving at least five dead.

Images released by the Italian navy showed migrants plunging into the water from the packed deck of the vessel as it rolled before sinking, likely due to people crowding to one side to flag down approaching rescuers.

An Italian navy patrol vessel, the Bettica, pulled 562 migrants from the sea, as well as five corpses, after a distress call was sent when the boat was 18 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. As sailors on the Bettica threw lifebelts, a helicopter from an Italian navy frigate circled, dropping lifeboats into the water.


With 590 believed to be on board when the boat set sail from Libya, 23 passengers were still unaccounted for, the navy said, and the frigate continued to search for bodies or survivors during the day, while the Bettica left to pick up another 108 migrants from a rubber dinghy nearby.

With calm weather returning to the Mediterranean, around 6,000 migrants, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, have set sail from lawless Libya this week. Most have packed into rubber dinghies, which often begin to let in water shortly after they leave Libyan waters, when they are picked by European vessels coordinated by the Italian coast guard.

Sailings this week have brought the total number of migrants crossing from North Africa this year to 37,785, the United Nations said Wednesday, slightly down from numbers seen by this time last year. Some 154,000 migrants made the crossing during 2015.

On Wednesday, an Italian coast guard vessel dropped off 1,053 migrants in Palermo, Sicily, including 260 unaccompanied minors, after rescuing them from 13 vessels.

Other rescues have been made by cargo ships and oil rig tugs, as well as ships operated by the charity Doctors Without Borders.

A Norwegian vessel is due to drop off 1,000 migrants at the Italian port of Salerno on Wednesday, the coast guard said.


Although the sea route from Turkey to Greece, which was used by Syrian refugees escaping their civil war, was closed earlier this year, few Syrians have shifted over to the route from Libya into Europe.The majority of those being picked up are Africans who have crossed the Sahara to Libya, where they increasingly face imprisonment, beatings and extortion.

According to the International Organization for Migration, over 1,370 migrants have died so far this year on the crossing.

The Italian navy is currently raising a boat that sank in the Mediterranean last year with up to 700 migrants on board.

This week, European foreign ministers renewed the mandate of a European naval operation which is trying to catch human smugglers at sea, and said that it would now offer training to coast guards in Libya, where a recently installed U.N.-backed government is struggling to win over rival militias.


Kington is a special correspondent.


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11:57 a.m.: This article has been updated with staff reporting, latest figures, background.

This article was originally posted at 9:10 a.m.