Sicily declares state of emergency in response to migrant boat accidents

After two shipwrecks left hundreds of migrants dead, Sicily and Italy step up naval and air patrols of water

Sicilian officials pay their respects Tuesday to refugees who drowned off the coast of Sicily last week, in Porto Empedocle near Agrigento in Sicily.
Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty Images

Sicily has declared a state of emergency in response to the rising number of migrants attempting to enter Europe by traveling on crowded, unsafe smuggler boats in the Mediterranean Sea.

Drones, warships and helicopters were deployed Tuesday in and around Italian waters to scare off smugglers trying to bring the boats into the country, following two tragic shipwrecks this month in which more than 400 Eritrean, Somali and Syrian refugees drowned.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said that the navy had rescued 290 migrants on Tuesday near the island of Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost territory.

The latest arrivals came on top of the 32,000 asylum seekers that the United Nations refugee agency said have landed in Italy and Malta so far this year.

On the same day, border guards said they had also seized a "mother ship" and arrested 17 crew members, who are believed to be Egyptians, following a landing in the southern Calabria region on Sunday.

These larger fishing vessels are often used by smugglers to complete most of the journey. Migrants are then put on smaller boats when they are closer to land, to evade coast guard operations.

Thousands have died over the years as the crossings are often made on ageing vessels.

The refugee shipwreck on Oct. 3 off Lampedusa was the country's worst ever, with 364 people killed when the 65-foot boat caught fire, capsized and sank within sight of the shore.

Just a few days later another heavily laden boat flipped over in rough seas off Malta, killing at least 36 of the Syrian refugees on-board.

European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem has said the E.U. border agency Frontex should deploy a vast maritime search-and-rescue operation from Cyprus to Spain.

But experts say stepped-up security at sea could leave thousands of migrants stranded in North Africa at the mercy of militias and traffickers.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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