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Italian coastguard answers distress call from Banksy migrant rescue boat

The boat, with more than 200 migrants, was around 90km southeast of Italian island of Lampedusa on Saturday
British street artist Banksy is funding the Louise Michel, covered with his own artwork, to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean (AFP)

The Italian coastguard said it answered a distress call on Saturday from a rescue vessel funded by British street artist Banksy and has taken charge of 49 migrants in most need of help.

"In view of the danger the situation posed, the coastguards sent a patrol boat from [the island of] Lampedusa... which took on board the 49 people in the most fragile condition - 32 women, 13 children and four men," the coastguard said in a statement.

Earlier on Saturday, the German-flagged MV Louise Michel, carrying more than 200 migrants on board, sent out a distress signal.

It said it was stranded and needed urgent help after lending assistance to a boat that was carrying at least one dead migrant.

The 31-metre vessel's crew said it was overcrowded and unable to move after encountering another boat attempting to cross the expanse dividing Europe and Africa with 130 people on board.

"There is already one dead person on the boat. We need immediate assistance," the Louise Michel crew wrote on Twitter, saying other migrants had fuel burns and had been at sea for days.

The vessel's crew of 10 had earlier rescued another 89 people from a rubber boat in distress on Thursday, and said European rescue agencies had so far ignored its distress calls.

They said on Twitter that there were a total 219 people on board and that they had requested assistance from the Italian and Maltese authorities.

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The boat, named after 19th-century French anarchist Louise Michel, was around 90km southeast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on Saturday, according to the global ship tracking website Marine Traffic.

Thousands of people are thought to have died making the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean to flee conflict, repression and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

Sea-Watch 4, which has rescued 201 migrants and is itself in search of a host port, decided to help the Louise Michel "in the face of the lack of reaction" from the authorities, a spokesman for the German NGO Sea-Watch, which charters the boat with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), told AFP.

The Italian left-wing collective Mediterranea, meanwhile, announced it would send the ship Mare Ionio from the port of Augusta in Sicily to assist, citing the lack of response from Italy or Malta in the face of "imminent danger of death" incurred by migrants.

The Louise Michel boat

Banksy's decision to fund the high-speed boat follows a body of work by the artist that has levelled scathing judgements on Europe's halting response to the migrant crisis.

Painted in hot pink and white, the Louise Michel features a Banksy artwork depicting a girl in a life vest holding a heart-shaped safety buoy.

The motor yacht, formerly owned by French customs, is smaller but considerably faster than other charity rescue vessels, enabling it to outrun Libyan coastguard boats, according to The Guardian.

Its crew is "made up of European activists with long experience in search and rescue operations" and is captained by German human rights activist Pia Klemp, who has also captained other such rescue vessels, the paper reported.

Banksy's involvement in the rescue mission goes back to September 2019, when he sent Klemp an email asking how he could contribute.

Klemp, who initially thought it was a joke, told the paper she believed she was chosen because of her political stance, The Guardian said.

"I don't see sea rescue as a humanitarian action, but as part of an anti-fascist fight," she told the paper.

A spokesman for the port at Burriana, in eastern Spain, confirmed that the Louise Michel docked there on 23 June and left on 18 August.

"During this time, they have been repairing and preparing the boat, but they did it by themselves, they did not use the port services," he told AFP.

About Banksy, "if he has been here, he came incognito," the official said.

Early this month, humanitarian organisations said they would resume migrant rescues in the Mediterranean Sea, where none have operated since the Ocean Viking docked in Italy in early July.

Before the Ocean Viking's last mission, rescue operations in the Mediterranean had been suspended for months due to the global coronavirus pandemic.