Armed threat as 2,000 migrants rescued from Med

Italian coastguard threatened by Kalashnikov-wielding men during the operation, in an 'alarming' new twist


A new risk of violence in the Mediterranean has emerged after more than 2,000 migrants were rescued by coastguards between the Italian island of Lampedusa and the Libyan coast.

In an "alarming twist", rescuers were faced with Kalashnikov-wielding men who approached in a speedboat from Libya, according to Italian officials. The armed men forced the coastguards to return a boat that had been emptied of migrants, the BBC reports.

The major rescue operation by the Italian authorities involved a plane, a navy vessel, two tugboats and four coastguard ships. On Friday, some 600 migrants were rescued in a separate operation off the coast of Libya.

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The latest rescue efforts come just days after 300 people died in the Mediterranean Sea after overcrowded dinghies from North Africa sank during bad weather.

A total of 3,500 people perished trying to cross the Mediterranean last year, making it one of the most dangerous sea crossings in the world. More than 200,000 people were rescued during the same period, the UN reports.

European governments have been criticised for failing to help rescue migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe. Italy has long called for other European countries to assist it in major operations off its coast.

An extensive Italian search and rescue mission was wound down last year, after its EU partners refused to share its running costs. It has been replaced with Triton, a more limited European border security operation, which has no search and rescue function and only a third of the budget.

"The problems cannot all be left to us because we are the first, the closest, the people who pick up the boats," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said this weekend, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

The British government argues that carrying out major rescue operations could encourage refugees to continue to make the crossing into Europe. However, Britain's stance has drawn sharp criticism, with Michael Diedring, secretary general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) calling it "morally reprehensible".

"People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life rings," said Maurice Wren, from the British Refugee Council. "Boarding a rickety boat in Libya will remain a seemingly rational decision if you're running for your life and your country is in flames."

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