Italy: Coastguard moves to rescue marooned migrant boat

Rome, 26 October (AKI) - Italian coastguard on Monday moved to rescue a boat adrift in the Mediterranean with some 200 migrants on board. The operation was being coordinated by a team from the Italian interior ministry in Rome and was being assisted by the Italian oil tanker 'Antignano', on the instructions of interior minister Roberto Maroni.

The boat had been adrift in rough waters between Italy and Malta for the three days. However, after Italian authorities were alerted, strong winds blew the boat back into Maltese waters. Malta and Libya have refused to intervene or provide help to the migrants.

Monday's rescue operation was being carried out in conjunction with authorities in the southern Sicilian town of Ragusa.

The migrants were due to be transferred to a reception centre in the southern Sicilian coastal town of Pozzallo in the province of Ragusa.

The migrant boat was spotted after one of the passengers sent an SOS from his satellite phone last Friday in a call to Eritrean family members in Italy, who then alerted the authorities.

According to relatives of the passengers, there could be as many as 250 people aboard the boat, which may have been at sea for five days.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said there were women and children amongst those on board the boat who needed assistance.

Two Italian coastguard vessels attempted to reach the boat on Sunday, but had to turn back due to the bad weather conditions.

The Italian interior ministry 'taskforce' includes medical staff who were due to give support local doctors and nurses in Pozzallo.

"This will allow rapid medical assistance should this prove necessary," said the Italian interior ministry.

Italy has recently drawn criticism from the Vatican, the United Nations and rights groups for a controversial 'friendship' pact with Libya.

Under the pact, thousands of migrants have since May been returned to the North African country aboard people smuggling boats intercepted in the Mediterranean by Italian and Libyan patrols.

The UNHCR has been especially critical of the new Italian policy of turning back migrant boats. Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no national asylum system. It also has a poor human rights record.