ROME - Italian coastguards rescued more than 350 African migrants off the small Italian island of Lampedusa over the weekend as they tried to reach European shores on rickety wooden boats, a coastguard official told Reuters on Sunday.
Last year tens of thousands of refugees and would-be migrants arrived in Lampedusa during the upheavals in North Africa, setting off a crisis that threatened to overwhelm the tiny island, but the flow has eased this year.
Coastguards rescued 231 people from sub-Saharan Africa on Saturday from a 15 metre wooden boat, including 33 women and four children, a coastguard official said.
Later on Saturday coastguards launched another rescue operation, this time involving 126 Tunisians who were on board a 10-metre-long wooden boat, the official said.
The migrants were taken to a reception centre on the island and were going through an identification process and screening to see if they had rights to asylum, he said.
Italy has borne the brunt of a wave of clandestine seaborne migration from Africa to southern Europe that has reached crisis proportions at times in the past few years.
Most migrants risk the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean Sea in small, overcrowded fishing boats, and thousands have died as a result of shipwreck, harsh conditions at sea or lack of food and water.
Lampedusa lies south of Sicily and about 130 km (80 miles) east of Tunisia, the closest point on the north African coast.