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European charity ship rescues 135 migrants but is assigned to distant port in Italy with 359 aboard

ROME (AP) — The European charity ship Ocean Viking said Friday it rescued another 135 migrants, including a pregnant woman and eight children, from a double-decker boat in Maltese search-and-rescue waters.

In total, the vessel operated by the humanitarian group SOS Mediterranee was carrying 359 shipwreck survivors, it said, adding the ship had been assigned to the distant port at Ancona, in Italy's central Marche region.

“Such a long navigation should never be imposed on persons rescued at sea,” the rescue organization wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Non-governmental organizations operating in the central Mediterranean Sea have repeatedly warned that the far-right-led Italian government’s policy of assigning ports farther north keeps their rescue ships out of waters where they can be saving lives.

Migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, often flee war and poverty in their own countries in search of a better life in European nations via the Mediterranean Sea.

Rome has recently ordered the ships to port after each rescue, punishing groups that conduct other rescues by holding ships in port for 20 days at a time.

The Ocean Viking has been subject to three such blocks over three months, the most recently from Feb. 8 until a judge lifted the block 10 days later.

Friday's rescue came a day after survivors saved from a deflating rubber dinghy in the central Mediterranean on Thursday reported that some 60 people who departed from Libya with them more than a week ago had perished during the journey.

The Ocean Viking spotted the dinghy with 25 people on board Wednesday. Two were unconscious and were evacuated to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, some 60 miles (97 kilometers) to the north. The other 23 were in serious condition, exhausted, dehydrated and with burns from fuel on board the boat.

An SOS Mediterranee spokesman said the survivors were traumatized and unable to give full accounts of what had transpired during the voyage, adding that the number of missing and presumed dead was unlikely to ever be verified.

Humanitarian groups often rely on accounts of survivors when pulling together the numbers of dead and missing at sea, presumed to have died.

The U.N. International Organization for Migration says 227 people have died along the perilous central Mediterranean route this year through March 11, not counting the new reported missing and presumed dead. That’s out of a total 279 deaths in the Mediterranean since Jan. 1. A total of 19,562 people arrived in Italy using that route in the period.

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Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration