Italy Rescues 4,000 From 'Merchant of Death' Boats

Image: Migrants rescued in the Strait of Sicily arrive in the port of Pozzallo, Sicily
Migrants rescued in the Strait of Sicily arrive in the port of Pozzallo, Sicily, on April 9, 2014.ITALIAN COAST GUARD via EPA

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/ Source: Reuters

Italy has rescued 4,000 migrants in 48 hours from boats run by “merchants of death” as they tried to reach European shores, the country's interior minister said on Wednesday.

"The emergency is getting worse and there is no halt to the boats arriving," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told state-owned RAI radio. "This issue is serious and Europe must take it in hand, immediately, because this is not a Mediterranean border but a European border."

"As we speak, there are people smugglers, merchants of death, earning and profiting from human beings, from the death of other men,” he added.

Better sea conditions make the trips shorter, less risky and therefore more profitable, he said.

Italian Navy dinghies approach a boat carrying migrants off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Wednesday.Italian Navy via AP

Turmoil in Libya -- which is grappling with chaos and rampant militias three years after the ousting of Moammar Gadhafi -- has also increased the numbers risking the perilous sea journey from North Africa to try to reach Europe.

Rescues over the past two days included one group of 1,049 migrants containing 91 women and three babies, who were spotted by a navy helicopter and a drone as their boats ran into difficulty.They were rescued by ships and brought to ports on the island of Sicily. Alfano said that on Wednesday two commercial vessels alerted by Italian forces were aiding 661 people in distress and that at least one migrant on the boats had died during the journey.

Rome has repeatedly urged the European Union to take a greater role in policing the seas as two-thirds of migrants who reach Italy travel onwards to other countries in the region. The interior minister said 15,000 migrants had arrived in Italy by sea since the start of 2014.