ROME – The bodies of eight migrants have been found at sea off the coast of Libya by rescuers coming to the aid of four rubber dinghies, the Italian coast guard said Tuesday.
Some 500 survivors were pulled to safety, the coast guard told AFP, illustrating the huge challenge that continues to bedevil authorities as people try to reach Europe.
The latest deaths came as the Italian government presented plans for a naval mission in Libyan territorial waters that aims to reduce the flow of migrants from the coast.
Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, which was taking part in the rescues, said the corpses were recovered by the Santa Lucia merchant ship.
“We are here to stop more people drowning, today eight dead and four drifting boats” in distress, Proactiva’s founder, Oscar Champs, said on Twitter.
The charity said there were 79 women and 39 minors — including four young children — among those rescued.
Nearly 95,000 people have been brought to safety in Italy this year, a rise of 1 percent on the same period last year, according to the interior ministry.
The government intends to send a logistics ship that could support Libyan units and will also offer a patrol boat, Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told lawmakers on Tuesday.
However, Italy has no intention to create a naval blockade, which would be a “hostile act,” she said, insisting that support for the Libyan mission was the aim and cooperation was necessary.
“Italy has always respected Libyan sovereignty,” Pinotti added.
At least 2,385 migrants have died during the perilous crossing since January, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.
The latest deaths come as aid groups — privately funded boats performed 26 percent of rescues in 2016, rising to 35 percent so far this year — are caught in a row over how they operate.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) refused Monday to sign a code of conduct on migrant-saving operations in the Mediterranean.
Sticking points cited were obligations for rescue boats to operate with an Italian police official on board and a ban on moving rescued migrants from one aid vessel to another while still at sea.
The code, created to address the biggest migrant phenomenon in Europe since World War II, lays down 13 rules Italy insists must be followed to prevent aid groups rescuing migrants from acting as a magnet for human traffickers.
But the rules have been widely criticized by the NGOs as making it more difficult for them to save lives.