ROME (Reuters) - Italy's coastguard said it helped rescue 22 migrants on Friday and is coordinating a search for missing people after receiving a distress call from a boat that ran into difficulties off the coast of Libya.
Coastguards in Sicily directed two Panamanian-flagged merchant ships towards the migrant boat, which they located about 29 miles off the Libyan coast when they received the call.
One of the ships rescued 20 people from the sea and discovered their half-submerged inflatable boat. The second ship picked up two people, the coastguard said in a statement.
A spokesman for the coastguard said it was not clear how many people were on the boat but that searches were ongoing. He said the people rescued so far were from sub-Saharan Africa.
Officials have also directed an Italian and a Maltese merchant vessel to the area to help search for the missing.
North Africa is a launch-point for maritime migration to southern Europe, with Italy the main destination. Thousands of people have been killed attempting the dangerous crossing in overcrowded and frequently unsafe boats.
Pope Francis recently visited the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where tens of thousands of migrants arrived during Arab Spring unrest in North Africa in 2011, to commemorate those that have died trying to reach a better life in Europe.
(Reporting By Catherine Hornby; Editing by David Evans)