ROME (Reuters) - Italy's coastguard rescued nearly 900 mostly Syrian migrants from two boats off western Sicily on Thursday, a coastguard spokesman said, amid signs that refugees from the Middle East are increasingly shunning the Greek route into Europe.
More than one million migrants, many from Syria, have entered Europe via Turkey and Greece in the past year but the number has fallen sharply since March when Ankara agreed with the European Union to take back refugees landing on the Greek islands.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said the two boats involved in Thursday's operations, which were also carrying some Iraqis, represented the largest such attempted mass migration from Syria and Iraq to Italy for at least a year.
The Italian coastguard spokesman said 515 people had been plucked from one boat and a further 380 people had been rescued in another operation. Most of those taken to safety were Syrian, but it was impossible to give precise numbers on nationalities until they were brought to shore in the coming hours, he added.
UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said the Syrians and Iraqis had set sail from Egypt rather than Libya, the launchpad for most migrants heading to Italy.
The UNHCR says more migrants looking to reach Europe arrived in Italy in April than in Greece -- 9,149 against 3,650 -- the first time that had happened since May 2015.
As of May 10, 31,250 migrants had reached Italy by boat this year, a 14 percent decline from the same period last year, according to the Interior Ministry.
The vast majority came from African countries, led by Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia and the African Coast.
In addition to the European Union's repatriation deal with Turkey, Balkan nations, Hungary and Austria have tightened border controls in an attempt to deter the migrants entering from Greece. Most who take the Balkan route head to Germany.
(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Gareth Jones)