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Italy launches rescue for hundreds of refugees on boats

An estimated 1,300 people are in danger off the coast of Calabria, where 73 people recently drowned in a shipwreck that sparked an investigation into Italy’s rescue efforts.

The Italian Coast Guard has launched multiple rescue operations to save hundreds of refugees packed aboard boats off the Calabria region less than two weeks after at least 73 people drowned in a shipwreck.

“The rescue operations … are particularly complex due to the large number of people on board the drifting boats,” the Coast Guard said in a statement Friday.

An estimated 1,300 people would be at risk.

Coast Guard ships were dispatched to rescue 500 people on a boat about 1,125 km (700 mi) from the region that forms the toe of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula.

Other ships were sent to rescue 800 people on two more distressed boats about 160 km (100 mi) off Calabria.

The coastguard has asked for extra help from a naval patrol boat, the Italian news agency ANSA reports.

“The military ship is sailing at full speed to provide the requested assistance,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement quoted by ANSA.

Italy’s sea-rescue capabilities for refugees have come under scrutiny following a shipwreck on February 26 along the same stretch of coastline.

A boy’s body was recovered on Friday, bringing the death toll to 73 and many more people missing.

Police ships had tried to reach their wooden boat last week but had been unable to return due to bad weather. The Coast Guard, better equipped to deal with rough seas, was not immediately activated.

Prosecutors are investigating whether Italian authorities failed to respond adequately to the ship after the European border control agency, Frontex, warned them that the boat likely had a large number of people on board.

Italy’s right-wing government has strongly denied any blame for the shipwreck. It responded to the incident on Thursday by proposing tougher prison sentences for people smugglers and opening up legal migration channels.

Nearly 3,000 refugees have reached Italy by boat since Wednesday, compared to about 1,300 in March last year.

In a separate incident earlier Friday, the coastguard detained nearly 500 refugees near the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, local media reported.

ANSA said 1,869 refugees arrived in Lampedusa on Thursday aboard 41 boats, the highest number of daily arrivals ever recorded on the island.

The Contrada Imbriacola shelter had taken in 3,000 people, the agency said.