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Dozens of migrants rescued off Italy, as many as 20 feared missing

European Commission asked to activate new migrant-relocation plan for 213 people on board Ocean Viking rescue ship
Ocean Viking rescue ship sails off coast of Italian island of Lampedusa in Mediterranean Sea (AFP/File photo)

Italian coastguards on Saturday said they had rescued 143 migrants off the island of Lampedusa, although about 20 others were missing, according to the survivors.

"The crews of four patrols rescued 143 people who had fallen into the sea" from a 10-metre boat, the coastguard said in a statement cited by AFP.

Survivors said that about 20 of those who had been on the boat were missing. Two men, an Eritrean and a Libyan, said they had been unable to locate their wives after the rescue.

A search for the missing continued on Saturday evening with two planes from Frontex - the border and coast guard agency for the EU's Schengen area - and the Italian navy flying over the area.

Malta takes some migrants from Ocean Viking but leaves others on board
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Those rescued were taken to Lampedusa where they were allowed to disembark.

Meanwhile, Italy, Germany, France and Malta jointly asked the European Commission to activate a migrant-relocation plan for 213 migrants onboard the Ocean Viking rescue ship, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said on Saturday.

"This is the first time this has happened" since the signing of a pre-agreement for the automatic distribution of rescued migrants in the Mediterranean concluded in September in Malta by the four EU countries.

Interior ministers from the EU countries on 23 September agreed on a plan to distribute migrants saved from the Mediterranean in a deal aimed at relieving the pressure on southern EU states, Reuters reported at the time.

Details of the accord were not revealed at the end of the meeting, but Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said the idea was for rescued migrants to be sent to various EU states within four weeks of being brought ashore.

Those countries would then handle their asylum requests, welcoming them in if they meet the necessary requirements and organising their repatriation if they do not.

The Ocean Viking, chartered by SOS Mediterranee with Doctors Without Borders, has rescued 215 people in three operations in recent days. One injured man and a pregnant woman had already been taken off the boat.