ROME Italy has rescued more than 2,500 men, women and children from overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily since early Thursday, the navy said, with good weather favouring departures from North Africa.
Italian navy and coast guard ships monitoring the waters off the Libyan and Tunisian coasts went to the aid of 17 different boats over the period, the navy said on Friday morning, adding that rescue efforts are continuing.
One ship, the San Giorgio, took aboard 998 migrants, including 214 women and 157 children, from five different vessels, the navy said in a statement.
"The improving weather and sea conditions have favoured the departures," the coast guard said in a separate statement.
Although the authorities gave no details about the nationalities of the migrants, they often include Syrians fleeing civil war and Eritreans evading military conscription.
Italy set up Europe's biggest search and rescue mission - called Mare Nostrum or "Our Sea" - almost eight months ago after 366 migrants fleeing African countries drowned when their boat capsized a mile from Sicily.
The mission to patrol the waters between Italy and Africa to prevent further tragedies employs a drone, several helicopters and airplanes, dozens of coast guard vessels and five navy ships.
The number of boat migrants who have reached Italy this year has already topped the more than 40,000 who came during all of 2013. The pace of arrivals is on track to exceed the record of 62,000 set in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings.
Italy's immigration centres are groaning under the flood and bureaucrats are struggling to process tens of thousands of requests to be hosted temporarily for humanitarian reasons or given asylum.
Italy has repeatedly asked for more European Union countries to join the effort to patrol one of the most popular migrant routes between Africa and Europe, but so far only Slovenia has chipped in, offering one ship for two months late last year.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi last week urged the United Nations to intervene in Libya, where criminal gangs charge migrants more than $1,000 each for a spot on unsafe vessels, to try to limit the departures.
The recent flood of boat migrants has helped revive the anti-immigrant Northern League, which had lost much of its support over the last two years due to corruption scandals and leadership changes.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)