Rescuers pulled some 650 migrants to safety and recovered five dead bodies from boats in difficulty off the coast of Libya on Wednesday, Italy’s coastguard said in a statement.
On the frontier between Europe and Africa, Italy is the focus for hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa, packed into rickety boats by smugglers.
An Italian navy ship, a vessel run by private rescue group MOAS and the Irish military ship James Joyce went to the rescue of six boats, the coastguard said. The James Joyce recovered the five bodies.
The exact causes of the deaths were not yet known, a coastguard spokesman said, but the migrants often “travel in inhuman conditions, more than 100 people packed into dinghies that would be suitable for a few dozen”.
The spokesman said he could give no further details about the migrants’ nationalities.
People smugglers have taken advantage of a breakdown of order in Libya to use it as a launch pad for their business less than 500 km (310 miles) from the Italian island of Sicily.