Nearly 700 refugees have been rescued off Sicily in five operations, Italy's coast guard said Friday, as European leaders grapple with the issue of illegal immigration at a European Union summit.
Coast guard patrol boats, navy vessels and a Maltese-flagged cargo vessel rescued five boats over the past 24 hours, the biggest of which was carrying 219 people, a coast guard statement said.
The 318 migrants picked up by the navy were all packed on two boats and were later transferred onto the San March amphibious assault ship taking part in a massive search and rescue operation.
The operation was launched by the Italian government in the wake of an October 3 refugee shipwreck tragedy just off the Italian island of Lampedusa in which 366 asylum seekers perished.
The coast guard rescued around 300 more migrants from two boats, while a Maltese vessel rescued 91 more around 200 kilometres south of Lampedusa.