Italy's navy rescued about 300 migrants in the waters between Sicily and Libya on Tuesday as the government deployed ships, helicopters and unmanned drones to help avert further shipwrecks that have already drowned hundreds this month.
A naval frigate and a patrol boat set out late on Monday when two separate migrant boats used satellite phones to call for help, a navy statement said. They were recovered and brought to the southern island of Lampedusa on Tuesday.
The boats risked the dangerous sea passage despite a shipwreck on 3 October that killed more than 360, mostly Eritreans, less than a kilometre from Lampedusa. Last Friday, at least 34 more migrants drowned when their boat capsized, though the true figure may be above 200.
Lampedusa, which lies southwest of Sicily and just 70 miles (113 km) from the coast of Tunisia, has been a stepping stone for migrants seeking a better life in Europe for two decades.
Now the Syrian civil war and unrest in Egypt and other Arab and African countries are fuelling the flow of refugees, many of whom have to pass through an increasingly unstable Libya.
To try to stem the flow of rickety boats and prevent further tragedies, Italy began on Tuesday to ramp up its military presence in the waters between Italy, Tunisia and Libya.
Italy will deploy an amphibious assault ship with an on-board hospital and long-range helicopters, five more naval vessels, several more helicopters and an airplane equipped with night-vision, plus unmanned drone aircraft.
"It will be a military and humanitarian operation to reinforce surveillance and rescue capabilities in the open sea which will increase safety levels and save lives," Defence Minister Mario Mauro said late on Monday when the plan was agreed.
However, humanitarian organisations are concerned about an increased militarisation of the border.
It may save refugees from drowning, but it may also leave more of them stranded in the Sahara desert or delivered into the hands of Libyan militias and crime groups, which are known to have beaten, raped and imprisoned migrants in the past.
"It's not a given that if an Italy navy ship intervenes that the migrants will be brought to an Italian port. It will depend on where the operation takes place," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was heckled on Lampedusa last week by islanders who said the European Union was partly responsible for the 3 October shipwreck.
Italy and Malta, the main points of arrival for most migrants from North Africa, have asked for more EU funds and have called for the migrant emergency to be put on the agenda of the next European Council meeting on 24-25 October.