ROME (Reuters) - Italian ships have picked up almost 700 migrants in seven inflatable boats and further rescue operations are underway as calm seas favoured departures from Libya for the Italian coast, the coast guard said on Sunday.
Italian navy and coast guard vessels and one merchant ship rescued the migrants from dangerously overcrowded boats on Saturday, a coast guard spokesman said, adding that other boats had been identified on Sunday and operations continued.
On Friday, around 1,000 migrants were rescued, with more than 500 reaching Porto Empedocle in Sicily on Sunday. Most of the migrants who disembarked were Eritrean and Somali, said a port official.
There were dozens of women among them wearing colourful headscarves, and they brought several children with them. Many of the migrants were barefoot. Another 600 migrants were expected to arrive in the port of Reggio Calabria later today.
Refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa regularly risk the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean, often between Libya and Sicily, to reach the European Union.
The number of migrant boats has picked up in the past two weeks as the spring weather has made the attempted crossing safer. In February, more than 300 drowned when attempting the crossing in cold weather and rough seas. [ID:nL5N0VL23T]
Around 3,500 are estimated to have drowned last year when more than 170,000 migrants managed to reach Italy by sea.
At least 480 migrants lost their lives in the Mediterranean during the first three months of this year, compared with fewer than 50 fatalities during the same period last year, the International Organisation for Migration said on Friday.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Gillian Hazell; Editing by Tom Heneghan)