Rome (AFP) - Some 970 migrants were rescued off the coast of Libya on Thursday, Italy's coastguard said, as the numbers attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe continue to rise.
Even before Thursday's arrivals, more than 13,400 people had arrived on Italy's shores so far this year -- an increase of 50 to 70 percent compared with 2016 and 2015.
According to the United Nations, more than 440 people have died or gone missing in January and February while crossing from Libya in the depths of winter, when the sea is at its most treacherous.
The migrants rescued Thursday were crammed into four rubber dinghies, a small wooden boat and another larger one.
Italy's coastguard said it coordinated the rescue operations with a Norwegian vessel under the command of EU border agency Frontex and two humanitarian ships manned by the SOS Mediterranee aid group, Doctors without Borders and the Spanish Proactiva Open Arms group.
The coast guard also received a distress signal from a sailboat that left Greece with about 85 migrants on board heading to southern Italy, but the boat never made it out of Greek waters.
It was rescued by a Maltese vessel that happened to be in the area, and the migrants were taken to the southern Greek port of Kalamata.
European efforts to close the migrant route at the Greek end of the Mediterranean are thought to lie behind the increased flow to Italy, with most departures taking place from the west of Libya, just 300 kilometres (190 miles) away from the Italian coast.
European countries are considering new measures aimed at blocking the migrants' arrival, alarming aid groups which fear people stranded in Libya may suffer mistreatment.
Six years after the fall of dictator Moamer Kadhafi, Libya is still in chaos and the country has become a major launching pad for migrants seeking to enter Europe.