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ROME (AP) — Italy's Coast Guard and Navy as well as tugs and other commercial vessels joined forces to rescue migrants in at least 16 boats Sunday, saving hundreds of them and recovering 10 bodies off Libya's coast, as smugglers took advantage of calm seas to send packed vessels across the Mediterranean.
The Italian Coast Guard said the bodies were found in three separate rescue operations off Libya's coast. The Coast Guard was being aided by a tug and a merchant ship in at least some of the rescue efforts. In one of those rescues, a cargo ship found three migrants dead and 105 survivors on a dinghy in the waters north of Tripoli, Libya.
In yet another dramatic rescue, migrants aboard a motorized rubber dinghy that was deflating were spotted by an Italian Navy helicopter. Boats in distress were being spotted so quickly Sunday, that in one case, a Navy vessel had just finished one rescue of 90 migrants when it immediately went to the aid of another migrant boat. One rescue involved 311 people, including 16 children, saved from a fishing boat in the smugglers' fleet.
Sunday's drama at sea came a day after 3,690 migrants were saved from smugglers' boats. Most of those migrants were still being taken to southern Italian ports even as the fresh rescues were taking place.
The soaring numbers sparked the latest round of calls from far-right politicians in Europe for drastic action to stop migrants from reaching European shores, once and for all.
Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen said France should send migrants back across the Mediterranean Sea.
A French patrol boat on Saturday rescued 217 migrants from three rubber dinghies and detained two suspected smugglers before all were turned over to Italian authorities.
Criticizing European immigration policy, Le Pen said on Europe-1 radio Sunday that France should send migrants back to their port of departure so "traffickers know that no migrant will come ashore on our coasts."
With Italy bearing the brunt of the arrivals for years now, the Italian far right, spearheaded by the anti-immigrant Northern League party, has also been pushing for a radical change in how the migrant sea arrivals are handled. One such suggestion has been to keep rescued migrants aboard large ferries offshore until their asylum applications, a process that can take months or more, are examined. Then those only found eligible for asylum in Europe would come ashore.
How the others aboard would be sent back to their homelands hasn't been made clear in these proposals, which hasn't made any headway in any case.
Italy and humanitarian officials have been warning for weeks that the smugglers' boats would continue to head toward Italian shores unabated, and that spells of mild weather and calm seas could see spikes in the arrivals.
Some of the migrants rescued earlier in the weekend were brought to tiny Lampedusa island, while others were headed to ports in Sicily or in Calabria, in the south of the Italian mainland, on Monday. Temporary shelters for those rescued were running out of room for more even before this weekend's new arrivals, local authorities had warned.
In weather good or bad, smugglers often use aging vessels that sometimes begin leaking shortly after leaving Libya. The boats are crammed with too many people as traffickers try to maximize earnings off the migrants, who pay hundreds of euros (dollars) for the passage between the Mediterranean's southern shore and Italy.
The relentless flood of migrants is continuing this year after 170,000 were rescued at sea by Italy in 2014 — a 277-percent increase over the numbers in 2013. Italy has pressed the European Union to do more to help it save the migrants, especially since many of those plucked to safety are asylum seekers hoping to reach relatives in northern Europe.
An estimated 800 migrants drowned last month when their boat capsized off Libya with hundreds of them locked in the hold by smugglers. After that, European Union officials at an emergency meeting agreed to beef up the Triton rescue mission with boats and patrol aircraft contributed by several countries. Italy, often pressing nearby cargo ships into service, coordinates the rescue operations.
Overall, a record 280,000 illegal border crossings were detected in the 28-nation EU last year, according to Frontex, Europe's border agency.
Angela Charlton contributed from Paris.
Follow Frances D'Emilio on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio
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