'Nightmare' of migrant rescues off Libya as EU leaders meet

Rome (AFP) - As EU leaders met in Malta Friday to tackle the migrant crisis, rescue ships off Libya described an "absolute nightmare" of multiple operations to save people including babies from a fresh wave of rickety boats.

The Aquarius, a humanitarian ship chartered by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and the Golfo Azzurro charted by Spain's Proactiva Open Arms, rescued more than 500 people in the early hours of the morning.

The Italian coast guard said other operations were under way as the Aquarius and Golfo Azzurro raced to intercept more migrant dinghies.

"It's an absolute nightmare in the Med right now, the Aquarius is fully over capacity after 5 rescues and has 3 left to do," MSF said on Twitter, while Proactiva said: "Fuel burns, injuries, babies ... A difficult day".

On the eve of the Malta meeting, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and his Libyan counterpart signed a deal in Rome on tackling people smugglers in the North African country.

Italy pledged money, coastguard training and equipment to assist the UN-backed government and urged EU leaders to do the same when they meet in Valletta to address the continent's worst migrant crisis since World War II.

The agreement says Rome and the EU will also fund Libyan camps -- which will be run by the Libyan interior ministry -- where migrants will be held before being returned to their original countries.

It seems this would apply to migrants of any nationality, including those fleeing war zones or persecution -- those that currently have a high rate of success when applying for asylum in European countries, such as Eritreans or Syrians.

Italy says some 4,480 people were rescued and brought to the country in January, while the UN says over 220 people died or were lost at sea.