THE Italian coastguard has rescued more than 2,000 migrants in a major operation off the Libyan coast, officials said yesterday.
During the rescue, search teams were threatened by Kalashnikov-wielding men who approached in a speedboat from Libya.
Last week, at least 300 migrants perished in the Mediterranean Sea.
They were travelling in dinghies that ran into trouble during stormy weather after leaving the coast of Libya.
On Friday another 600 migrants were rescued about 50 miles off the coast of the North African country.
The latest rescue effort on Sunday involved a plane, four coastguard ships, two tugboats and a navy vessel, according to reports.
Local media reported that the migrants had been aboard 12 boats and had been taken to Italy.
According to Italy’s transport ministry, four men with Kalashnikov rifles sped out from the Libyan shore during the rescue and ordered the coastguard to return a boat that had been emptied of migrants.
Some of the gunmen then jumped on to the boat and took off with it, added transport minister Maurizio Lupi.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says almost 3,500 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2014, making it the world’s most dangerous sea crossing for migrants trying to enter the European Union.
More than 200,000 people were rescued during the same period.
In December last year, Italian coastguards saved at least 728 migrants from a cargo ship near the Greek island of Corfu after its crew had apparently disappeared.
The migrants, mainly from Syria, arrived in the Gallipoli port of south-east Italy where emergency crew, Italian Red Cross workers and police were at the scene.
Italian authorities took control of the cargo ship after the crew disappeared and set it on a programmed route to crash into a coast.
Police and maritime authorities then launched an investigation over how the migrants, including a heavily pregnant woman, came to be hidden on the Blue Sky M as it sailed to the Croatian port of Rijeka.
The ship had already passed inspection by Greek navy, but failed to detect anything suspicious.
Many people speculated that people traffickers abandoned the ship when authorities neared the boat as it crossed the Adriatic sea between Greece and Italy, but no official confirmation was ever given.
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