Italy rescues 400 migrants ahead of papal visit

Italian coast guard and navy vessels on Wednesday rescued nearly 400 migrants on three boats ahead of a visit by Pope Francis next week to the tiny island of Lampedusa -- a gateway for undocumented migrants and refugees into the European Union.

The navy said in a statement it had found a boat carrying around 80 migrants and that there were no fatalities aboard, as had been reported earlier by a Tunisian fishing vessel which spotted them.

But it said that the condition of the boat was deemed "unstable" and its passengers, including 10 women and one child, were being taken on board a patrol boat and would be taken to Lampedusa.

Two coast guard vessels which had also been scrambled to the area will remain in position, amid an uptick in migrant arrivals in recent weeks.

A joint navy and coast guard operation earlier on Wednesday intercepted a boat carrying more than 200 migrants and two French journalists also off the coast of Lampedusa, Italian media reported.

A total of 227 people were on board, including 41 women and four children.

The rocky outcrop in the central Mediterranean Sea is a transit point for thousands of migrants into Europe, who often make perilous journeys on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies.

The arrivals on Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than to the Italian mainland, have increased drastically since the beginning of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011.

Hundreds have drowned or been suffocated in the often heavily overcrowded boats, often travelling without sufficient food and fuel on board.

Also on Wednesday, 65 migrants were rescued off the coast of Italy's southern Calabria region on a boat that was taking on water and risked sinking.

Pope Francis has said he wants to visit Lampedusa on Monday to pray for people who have lost their lives in the crossings and offer support to the local population, which has hosted the migrants.

Nearly 8,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since the start of the year -- double the number from last year over the same period. The highest number of migrants -- 3,648 people, or three times more than last year -- landed on Lampedusa.

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