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Nine dead as Italy rescues 6,055 migrants on disaster anniversary

Thousands, including minors and pregnant women, were rescued off the coast of Libya on Monday
At least 11,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean since the Lampedusa tragedy (AFP)

Italy's coastguard said nine corpses were recovered in operations in which 6,055 people were rescued off Libya on Monday, three years to the day after 366 people died in the sinking incident that first alerted the world to the Mediterranean migrant crisis.

In a poignant reminder of the ongoing drama being played out on Europe's southern shores, the coastguard coordinated the rescue of a total of 39 distressed vessels, the bulk of them overcrowded rubber dinghies but also including five converted fishing boats crammed full of people, mostly Africans.

Just under 200 minors were among those saved from one of the former fishing boats which had some 720 people on board, according to NGO SOS Mediterranee.

Most of the minors were unaccompanied and nine were under five years old. At least 10 of the 191 women on board were pregnant.

Two women and a child had to be evacuated for medical treatment after suffering severe burns caused by spilled fuel during a rescue from a rubber dinghy by a boat operated by the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity.

A young pregnant woman died from her burns after being rescued during a second operation by the MSF boat dignity, the charity said.

"It is unacceptable that in 2016 these people have no other choice than to embark on these incredibly dangerous sea journeys," said MSF coordinator Nicolas Papachrysostomou.

The Italian coastguard said the operations had taken place in an area around 30 miles north of the Libyan capital Tripoli.

Separately, a Libyan coastguard official said that two children and nine women died on Monday when a small boat carrying migrants to Italy capsized off the shore of Libya.

It was unclear if the two fatal incidents were separate.

In the disaster three years ago, a fishing boat packed with some 500 people caught fire and sank rapidly in darkness just off the outlying Italian island of Lampedusa in the night of October 2-3.

A total of 366 bodies were recovered in the hold or washed up on the coast of an island where Pope Francis had, a few months previously, railed against the "globalisation of indifference" towards the plight of migrants seeking better lives in Europe.

The disaster resulted in Italy's navy launching a large-scale search and rescue operation that has since evolved into a multinational effort involving groups like MSF and Save the Children.

Hundreds of thousands have been rescued but at least 11,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean since the Lampedusa tragedy, according to figures collated by the UN refugee agency.

The president of the Italian Red Cross, Francesco Rocca, said his organisation's volunteers who had witnessed the horrors of that day were still haunted by it.

"Three years later and people continue to die in their thousands – nothing has changed. Indifference is killing people."

Italy last year declared 3 October a national day of commemoration and welcome in honour of the dead.

The latest people to be rescued will add to a total of some 132,000 migrants and refugees who landed at Italy's southern ports between the start of 2016 and the end of September.

At least 300 people drowned off the coast of Egypt on 21 September when a boat carrying as many as 600 people capsized in the Mediterranean.

The migrant crisis has been exacerbated by the conflicts in the Middle East, as refugees fleeing the wars in Iraq in Syria seek new lives in Europe.

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