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Italy rescues more than 400 migrants in 24 hours - January 13, 2014

Migrants on a Marina Militare vessel during a rescue operation by Italian navy off the coast of Sicily. Photo: Reuters

Migrants on a Marina Militare vessel during a rescue operation by Italian navy off the coast of Sicily. Photo: Reuters

The Italian navy rescued more than 400 migrants from two boats south of Sicily on Saturday and yesterday as the immigration crisis that killed hundreds in shipwrecks last year continued.

On Saturday afternoon, 236 men, women and children, mostly from Africa, were rescued and were being taken to a port near Syracuse in Sicily, the navy said in a statement.

Another boat carrying about 200 others was identified yesterday morning and the rescue was under way in the afternoon, a separate statement said.

Italy is a major gateway into Europe for many migrants seeking a better life, and sea arrivals to the country from northern Africa more than tripled in 2013, fuelled by Syria’s civil war and strife in the Horn of Africa.

In October, 366 Eritreans drow­ned in a shipwreck near the shore of the Italian island of Lampedusa, about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. More than 200, mostly Syrians, probably died in another shipwreck a week later.

Following the October shipwreck, Italy launched a special operation combining ships, helicopters and drones to monitor the Mediterranean Sea.

Italy, Greece and Malta have borne the brunt of migrant flows and have urged the EU make a more robust and coordinated response. Meanwhile yesterday, an Italian government source said Italy will honour a pledge to host the transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal despite growing domestic opposition and this week will name the commercial port where the handover will take place.

The transfer of chemicals aboard a Danish vessel to a specially adapted US ship, where they will be destroyed at sea, is part of an international accord engineered by Russia in the wake of a poison gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus that killed hundreds last August.

Italy agreed to allow the use of a port on its territory for the transit of the toxins used in making sarin, VX gas and other lethal agents, prompting vocal opposition from some areas touted by the media as possible destinations.

The mayor of the southern Italian city of Brindisi and the governor of the region of Sardinia have both said they would put up a legal and political fight if their ports were chosen for the handover.

Several criteria are being considered in selecting the port, the government source said, including “its distance from densely populated centres”.

That may exclude Brindisi and the Sardinian regional capital Cagliari, whose ports are located at the heart of those cities.

Italian media have said the Sicilian port of Augusta, Gioia Tauro in Calabria, or other more isolated Sardinian ports are also being considered.

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